Friday, November 14, 2008

Energy: Lay Out Clean Rules—and Fast

Energy: Lay Out Clean Rules—and Fast

What Business Wants

The financial meltdown and plunging oil prices have pushed the energy crisis off plenty of priority lists. But for Michael G. Morris, CEO of American Electric Power (AEP), one of the nation's largest electricity generators, it's still front and center. "At $2.30 per gallon of gasoline, many think the energy issue is over," he says. "It is so far from over."

It's more crucial than ever, Morris and many other executives say, for Barack Obama to guide the country down a new energy path. The goals: reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil, making the economy less vulnerable to energy disruptions, modernizing the creaky electricity-transmission system, and tackling global warming. "We are not going to fix the economy over the long term without taking care of energy," says Red Cavaney, longtime president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Business wants a comprehensive energy plan, and fast. The issue is especially urgent, leaders say, not only because energy prices are expected to rebound once the recession ends but also because companies face difficult multibillion-dollar investment choices. In general, they accept restrictions on carbon emissions—and expect them. But without knowing what the rules will be, how do companies decide whether to build new nuclear or coal-powered plants? Spend more on wind, solar, transmission lines, or efficiency measures? Tool up to make plug-in hybrid cars or construct biofuel factories? Such choices aren't limited to energy companies, since energy costs determine whether or not it will be economically feasible to site a new aluminum plant in the U.S. or to expand airline routes. Investments could be brilliant or doomed, depending on what Washington does.

It has been enormously frustrating to business that Congress hasn't even been able to take tiny steps with strong bipartisan support, such as extending incentives for wind, solar, and other fossil fuel alternatives in time to prevent disruptions in these industries. Now companies are looking to President-elect Obama to force Washington to act. "The way we made it to the moon was with a strong hand from the executive branch," says Andrew W. Hannah, CEO of Plextronics, a Pittsburgh printer of electronic circuits for solar panels and other devices. "We need to have that voice in the executive office now."

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