The fire sale of a taxpayer-backed ethanol plant in Georgia and the collapse of a California maker of solar panels despite $535 million in federal loan guarantees and the generous government subsidies intended to lure reluctant motorists into electric vehicles show that alternative fuels are no easy answer to American energy needs. Certainly they are no immediate answer.
For the foreseeable future, we're stuck with oil, gas and, for power generation, coal. For consumer purposes, the first two have proven and efficient distribution systems. And that's why the Obama administration should approve the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline from western Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Canada is our largest energy supplier and, like Alaska, has huge oil and gas reserves, albeit inconveniently far from the refineries and the ultimate consumers. The environmentally fastidious may stall in hope that some alternative fuel -- anybody remember the Bush administration's faith in switch grass? -- will pan out, but, realistically, it's just not going to happen.
The most promising, corn-based ethanol, proved an economic flop, and special interests have blocked imports of ethanol derived from sugar cane in Brazil, where it is economically feasible.
That leaves oil and gas --and pipelines. Keystone XL will not be the last such project.
President Barack Obama is caught between two powerful Democratic constituencies: organized labor, which wants the jobs; and environmentalists, who don't want the pipeline period, because of the danger of spills and the indisputably messy process of extracting the oil from tar sands.
And then there are the Republicans, who seem to have uncritically swallowed the ludicrously high estimates of the number of jobs the pipeline will create, estimates that, not unsurprisingly, come from the people who want to build it.
However, the Republicans are likely key to the most satisfactory compromise.
Allow the pipeline to be built, but swallow their anti-regulation bias and provide for thorough and well-funded regulatory oversight of the pipeline's structural integrity and safe operation.
Surely we learned something from the disastrous BP drilling-rig fire in the Gulf where sloppy, spotty and indifferent federal regulations encouraged operators to cut corners. It needn't have happened.
And there's no reason that, properly watched and inspected, that Keystone XL can't be operated cleanly and safely. The bottom line is that we need that oil and gas but we don't need to wreck the countryside to get it.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)