Friday, July 25, 2008

Helter-skelter energy siting needs better approach

This fact is clear and indisputable: America's energy needs have become a critical national issue.

The other fact is just as obvious: the nation's political and business interests are treating it as a free market problem to be solved willy-nilly.

The political atmosphere is filled with ideas and plans, some bogus and unworkable, others that need urgent government assistance. Forget about fanciful gas tax holidays and offshore oil drilling as quick fixes to the high gas prices.

High on the list of unmet needs are state and federal authorities that would specialize in developing criteria for where to locate energy-producing facilities, including nuclear generators.

Too many critical factors are involved in where facilities are built to be left, as in the case of Idaho, to county commissions that lack technical expertise.

Whether a nuclear plant, solar farm, wind farm or transmission line, the lasting local and national impact require a far broader perspective than can be derived locally or from a commercial operator.

Energy facilities can endure for generations and have a profound effect.

What of the effect on the local air and water and wildlife? What of local infrastructure needs (roads, emergency services, housing, schools, etc.)? Is the site reasonably isolated from population areas to avoid safety risks? Can energy produced by the facility be available far beyond the local site? Are uniform safety and inspection standards in effect for all facilities regardless of state location?

The uncomfortable reality is that U.S. energy regulation and oversight is scattered over literally hundreds of federal and state agencies and congressional committees—where it exists at all. Often, energy producers decide where to locate based on land costs and pliable local politics and not much else.

The horrific environmental destruction and human damage left in Appalachia by coal mining companies is damning evidence of the compelling need for stricter government intervention in where and how energy is produced.

Idaho's state legislators have opposed creating a state plant siting authority. But times and conditions are rapidly changing and any further delay might lead to regrettable decisions without proper technical regulations. State lawmakers already are paying for their hemming and hawing on road improvement funding. State roadways are deteriorating and increased fuel taxes seem politically improbable now.

A sensible resolve to quickly create state and federal siting authorities would be a major step in reassuring Americans government is finally serious about the energy issue.

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