Refining the Question Not Asked

President Bush yesterday announced some proposals to help ease the nation’s energy crisis. Among the proposals, which caught many in the industry by surprise, is one that would allow construction of petroleum refineries on shuttered military bases.

As the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller reported today, “the plan … startled energy experts outside the administration. Administration officials said that bases could either be leased or sold to private companies in open bidding. At present, there are about 100 closed bases in the United States, but some have already been redeveloped as commercial airports or economic free zones for businesses.”

The Washington Post’s Justin Blum and Jim VandeHei wrote, “Allowing companies to build on military bases would give an added incentive for new construction to expand capacity, officials said.”

Only the Washington Times’ James G. Lakely makes passing reference to one aspect of the Bush plan that might keep it alive, despite a cool reaction from the oil industry: It could save the federal government millions in cleanup costs at those bases, many of which have been badly polluted over the years.

As the Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year, the Pentagon has already spent $8.3 billion to clean up contaminated military bases that it was closing and another $3.6 billion will be needed to complete the task. Years of careless dumping, unsafe ammunition disposal and leaking storage tanks have left severely polluted groundwater and other problems at many sites around the country.

If it could lease or sell the land to someone who wants to build a refinery — not the cleanest industrial operation in the universe — it’s likely the government could sidestep a costly cleanup. Nice trade-off. Unless you live next door.

Bush’s proposal, which he tossed out yesterday during a luncheon with small business owners, wasn’t entirely a surprise to the White House press corps. Adminstration officials briefed reporters on the president’s plans yesterday.

Too bad nobody put two and two together then, and asked the obvious:

Under the guise of promoting an energy solution (which even the White House admits won’t do anything immediately to bring down gasoline prices), is the Bush administration simply calculating how to get out of costly environmental cleanups?

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.