Democrats voting in Ohio and Texas may well decide the shape of the U.S. presidential election. Regardless of who they choose to run against Sen. John McCain, the all but certain Republican candidate, it is likely that energy issues will figure more prominently in the election than at any time in the last generation. High prices are sapping economic growth, the No. 1 concern across most of the country. Gasoline is now approaching $4 a gallon; natural gas and electricity are also more costly than a few years ago. Global warming has become a bipartisan worry, and solving that problem will require radical new energy technologies as well. All this is good news in the rest of the world, which is hoping that a new regime in Washington will put the United States on a more sustainable energy path.
It may be a vain hope. It is extremely unlikely that Washington will ever supply a coherent energy policy, regardless of who takes the White House in November. That's because serious policies to change energy patterns require a broad effort across many disconnected government agencies and political groups. Higher energy efficiency for buildings and appliances, a major energy use area, requires new federal and state standards. Higher efficiency for vehicles requires federal mandates that always meet stiff opposition in Detroit. A more aggressive program to replace oil with biofuels requires policy decisions that affect farmers and crop patterns-yet another part of Washington's policymaking apparatus, with its own political geometry.