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We need a Manhattan Project to bust up OPEC

There's little in the upcoming energy bill to get excited about, CNET's Charles Cooper says. Why not set sights higher?

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Congress will give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to a new energy bill. I suppose that's good news, but why do we always get stuck making do with half measures?

On the surface, that's not how it's being sold to the public. Of course, given the bleak track record, anything resembling progress in pursuit of the holy grail of energy independence will be hailed as a signal achievement. I wish it really were so.

The new energy bill, a bridge document between separate proposals from the House and Senate, is supposed to spur new investment in clean energy and help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

To be sure, it does offer a little something for everyone. But there's little here to get excited about.

My biggest disappointment with the energy bill is that it aims so low.

The solar-energy crowd would do well, receiving an extension of a juicy 30 percent tax credit. Proponents of better fuel economy standards would receive the first bump in fuel economy standards in more than three decades. And the agricultural-business interests would grab a government commitment to vastly expand the nation's production of biofuels.

A nice Washington compromise that makes nearly everybody happy, and perhaps it would have been worth an approving headline 10 years ago--or even 5 years ago. But with crude-oil prices hovering in the $90-plus per-barrel range, all this seems so puny and, well, late.

How late? Late enough that even remote rumblings of oil interruptions in the Middle East, Africa, or Venezuela now are enough to trigger periodic panics on Wall Street. Late enough that the country's geopolitical-military strategy compels the United States to prop up medieval autocracies. Late enough that escalating competition from China for access to global petroleum reserves could set the stage for future friction, if supplies dwindle.

We can't say any of this took us by surprise. Since 1975, the United States' total energy use has climbed by more than 40 percent, according to a report from CIBC World Markets. The trend was clear, and yet it took a crisis to wake up the political class.

Starting with Jimmy Carter's presidency, several administrations--both Republican and Democrat--have come and gone without doing much to address our growing appetite for oil. Until now.

Along the way, there were a couple of obvious steps that they might have take, had they had the necessary cojones:

• Imposing a fat tax on gasoline at the pump. You still want to drive that Hummer? Fine, but Uncle Sam's surcharge will help finance research into finding new sources of renewable energy.

• Promoting nuclear energy. This one always unnerves a lot of people. But safety improvements since Three Mile Island are for real. The government should also streamline the ridiculously long wait between applying for a license and being able to break ground on a new reactor.

My biggest disappointment with the energy bill is that it aims so low. For example, the Senate bill raises the so-called CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard to 35 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2020. Hoopty doo. My local dealership already sells vehicles that will leave those mileage statistics in the dust.

The legislation also would commit utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources of energy by the year 2020. Some are going to seize upon that as a good start. But is that the best effort we can muster? Even the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government must deal with the question of climate pollution.

The president has made it clear that he's none too fond of this Congress. So why not up the ante and use his office's bully pulpit to mobilize the scientific and technology communities to a real call to arms. Such as? How about the equivalent of a Manhattan Project to bust up OPEC?

That would be something to get excited about.