Need ever clearer

This year’s drought is highlighting yet another reason why the failure of Congress and the president to create a coherent national energy policy may prove to be one of the most severe policy lapses ever. It is not yet, however, too late to develop a plan that will secure the nation’s energy future without causing major disruptions to the economy, to industry or to Americans’ lives.

The drought that is ravaging more of the nation than at any time since the 1950’s, and which is driving commodity prices — particularly corn — to unprecedented levels has renewed debate about the flaws in policies which will turn about 40 percent of the corn crop into motor vehicle fuel instead of food. More to the point, it has made clear just how little thought has gone into the potential downside of an energy program which, while rewarding for some farmers, does not really make a major positive impact for most Americans. Rather than address critical energy needs with narrow programs, it is clear that Congress and the president need to seek expert advice and then develop policies which will gradually wean America off excessive use of gasoline, phase in clean energy sources and recognize that doing those things will almost certainly have an economic cost. But phasing in sensible programs over a long period will spread that cost and make it manageable for individuals and industry (including agriculture) alike.

There will be no easy answers, no simple ways to clean up the environment, keep the power flowing and do it all affordably. But almost any problem can be solved in an acceptable way if the answer involves slow, steady progress to which everyone can adjust. Answers that fix one part of a problem without regard to all the others, on the other hand, will inevitably lead to chaos.

It is too late now to jerk the rug out from under the ethanol industry. It is not, however, too late to make future plans that meet multiple needs — including protecting the nation’s food supply. Doing so will require some political courage, and it will be worth asking candidates this fall how — and whether — they will demonstrate their own courage.

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