George W. Bush’s energy plan fudges the facts, raises false alarms, shamelessly peddles halfhearted green measures–all to provide a cover under which to slide the oil industry’s wish list. Jimmy Carter, who knows a real energy crisis, in a Washington Post Op-Ed accused the administration of using “misinformation and scare tactics to justify such environmental atrocities as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Bush cites California’s troubles as a call to action for a plan that does not address them. It revives nuclear power with no ideas on where to safely put the waste, trashes environmental regulations and airily dismisses international concerns about global warming, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly noted in a little-reported speech at Tufts University on May 20. “We do not face a choice between economy and ecology,” Annan said. “In fact, the opposite is true: Unless we protect resources and the earth’s natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth.”

Bush’s plan, crafted in secret sessions with input from industry reps and none from consumer advocates, is a mélange of vague (“make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy”), sometimes contradictory suggestions and steps the Bush Administration can take unilaterally (easing regulations for the electric, oil and nuclear industries). It will unleash much squabbling in Congress, as legislators take up other portions of the package. Not only will enviros face off against industros on assorted fronts–the consensus of the moment is that Bush’s plan to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness is near-DOA in Congress–but energy-producing states will square off against consuming states.

Industries themselves could be at each other’s throats, competing to gain an edge via legislation. Natural gas companies, for instance, have no interest in seeing environmental rules relaxed for coal-burning utilities. Electricity cooperatives will wrangle with electric utilities. Northeast power-generators could tussle with Midwest utilities over emissions. Conservative free-marketeers will decry using the tax code to assist one industry or another. All in all, this is a full-employment project for Washington lobbyists. Expect campaign contributions from energy companies to rise faster than the price of gasoline.

But the many fault lines and divides have yet to be defined, and the possibility of Jim Jeffords’s switch (still not officially announced at press time–see the editorial, following) injects a new element of uncertainty into the mix. Democrats are in some disarray; senators and House members have home-state concerns. Think of John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of oil-producing Louisiana, who already have broken with their party to support a tax bill resembling the Bush plan. As the tax-bill fight demonstrates, Republicans need only to peel away a few Bush-friendly Democrats in the Senate to succeed. And in the House, as one senior Democratic staffer notes, “there are a number of Blue Dog Democrats who get their money from the same people who fund Bush and Cheney.” But at the same time, there are House Republicans–including several in California–worrying about energy legislation that rewards price-gougers and gives no short-term relief to consumers.

One liberal-leaning Democratic senator surveys the landscape this way: “Senate Democrats should be able to stick together on much of the environmental and policy matters regarding, say, regulations and more resources for conservation and alternatives. It’s going to be much harder on the populist front. They’re not all going to want to be tough on the industries.”

The Democrats’ message so far is that Bush and Cheney are just pimping for Big Oil and other energy interests while trampling the environment. Perhaps that will resonate with voters. But it remains to be seen if Democrats can sell a bold alternative approach that promotes conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. At a recent meeting with reporters, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt dismissed the notion of raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Like his Republican foes, he fears proposals that might impinge on the American way of life (read: consuming oil in gluttonous amounts).

Republicans think that blaming environmental extremists for the nation’s (real or imagined) energy troubles–like California’s deregulation mess–is good politics, while the Democrats almost giddily believe environment/energy to be Bush’s main vulnerability. Given the muddy legislative swirl Bush’s energy plan will stir up, the public will be lucky if the debate stays that starkly defined.

Environmentalist groups should forcibly inject broader public interest considerations into the mix and seek to provoke a real national energy dialogue that goes beyond green-versus-brown accusations and political point-scoring. Any serious, comprehensive energy policy would start by taking the $100 billion the Pentagon wants for a technically dubious National Missile Defense system and investing it in enhancing proven alternative-energy and efficiency technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells (the idea Al Gore pushed during the late campaign and Bush derided, then stole for his energy plan)–all these renewable technologies are proven and feasible. A multibillion-dollar federal investment in them would assure their cost-effectiveness and wider use.

Bush has declared an energy crisis and opened the door to a national discourse on saving energy. The Democrats should say, “Thanks, George,” and take the opportunity to supplant his hot air with action.