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WASHINGTON — The war on terrorism and destructive hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico have led lawmakers to consider what direction the United States energy policy should take in the 21st century. For young people, the debate between expanding refineries and increasing reliance on alternative fuels and conservation will have both immediate and long-term consequences - from the price of gas today to the first new cars we buy, which may not run entirely by gasoline.

Energy conservation was on President Bush's agenda when he signed the new energy law in August. The President called the plan, which provides for expansion of renewable fuel options "an energy strategy for the 21st century" that includes an enhanced role for conservation. But many environmentalists say the president isn't doing enough.

"It's sort of like one step forward, 10 steps back," said Robert Perks, spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council. "It doesn't really do anything to reduce dependence on oil."

The law provides incentives for oil refineries to produce more gasoline. Part of the reason for the push to increase oil supply, said Bush at the signing of the law, is to take pressure off gas prices. A bill passed by the House last week calls for the construction of more refineries outside of the ravaged Gulf Coast, where much of the U.S.'s oil supply is stationed. Perks said that the problem doesn't lie with increased refinery capacity.

"We can't drill our way out of energy dependency," Perks said. "Less than 3 percent of oil supplies are found in land we can control."

Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection agreed that supply isn't the problem.

"Katrina exposed the weakness of an energy policy based on perpetuating our dependence on oil," said DiPeso. "[We] need a more comprehensive approach; we need to focus on demand."

DiPeso says he advocates a diverse energy supply and efficient use of natural resources.

"What we need to do is go back to some of the older conservative virtues that seem to have been forgotten in D.C. lately," he said.

The law does include the first national standard for renewable fuel resources. It calls for a doubling of the amount of ethanol and biodiesel used in producing gasoline by 2012, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is produced in a chemical process that involves grinding starchy grain or corn kernels and fermenting the mixture, after which it's eventually mixed with gasoline. Biodiesel fuel is made using a combination of vegetable oil and gasoline. Both ethanol and biodiesel fuels reduce America's dependency on foreign oil and burn cleaner than normal fuels.

"[The bill] is not necessarily the end-all-be-all, but it's a good step," said Bob Dinneen, president of the RFA. "I liken it to the addict who recognizes he has a problem. …We're going to go about the business of addressing it."

Italia Federici of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy blames environmentalists for the current state of affairs.

"There has been a 30-year policy by the Sierra Club and the (National Resources Defense Council) and it's a failed policy," said Federici, who noted that both groups have consistently been against development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

While Federici concedes that only a small percentage of the world's available petroleum reserves lies in land accessible to the U.S., she says that not taking advantage of that availability, given the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, is "callous."

"An increase of 3 to 5 percent in oil would allow [people in New Orleans] to heat their home,"she said. "We need to do it. People are in pain now."

— Eric Crouch Medill News Service

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