Pouring on the fossil fuels

Energy: Oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power interests have the ear of the Bush administration.

May 06, 2001|By Peter H. Stone

AFTER WEEKS of meetings with energy industry executives and their top lobbyists, Vice President Dick Cheney has outlined a national energy strategy that shuns conservation and calls for heavier reliance on oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy.

Cheney, who heads a Cabinet-level energy taskforce, views conservation and alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power as unrealistic responses to the nation's energy problem. He favors reviving the nuclear power industry and moving to increase production of the old standbys - fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal.

Later this month, the task force is expected to give the president its suggestions for an energy plan that would include a mix of legislative proposals, executive actions and private-sector incentives.

While the plan is being crafted, representatives from the oil and natural gas industry and coal and nuclear power interests have enjoyed access to the White House and the task force members.

Cheney previewed the task force's recommendations on Monday during the annual meeting of the Associated Press in Toronto. He called for building 38,000 miles of natural gas pipelines and exploration in protected areas such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Cheney wants to build electric generating plants at the rate of one per week for two decades including coal-powered plants that would use "clean-coal" technology to cut pollution. Coal use has been linked to acid rain, global warming and other environmental problems.

Cheney says nuclear power is safe and clean. His support gives new life to the nuclear power industry, which was badly hurt by the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

But with California facing power shortages and gasoline prices rising, the administration is touting its energy proposals, which dovetail well with oil, coal and nuclear industry wish lists, as the answer to a national "energy crisis."

Though Cheney played down conservation in his talk, President Bush on Thursday ordered federal agencies in California and 500,000 federal buildings nationwide to adopt conservation measures.

But overall, the administration's energy policies tilt heavily toward fossil-fuel interests. Further, oil and coal lobbyists have been pressing the energy task force to propose modifications to Clean Air Act regulations that they say limit production.

On March 21, Cheney and Archie Dunham, chairman and chief executive officer of Conoco Inc., the Houston-based oil company, met at the White House. The meeting underscores the input that Cheney and other task force members, including its executive director, Andrew Lundquist, have had from the oil industry.

During the session, Dunham stressed the need to accelerate oil and gas exploration and to relax rules and regulations, including environmental ones, that slow construction of oil refineries and gas pipelines.

Dunham was preaching to the converted. Before Cheney became vice president, he ran the Dallas-based oil services giant, Halliburton Co. Last year, Dunham led the Bush campaign's efforts to round up hard dollars in oil country.

The oil and gas industry has a strong ally in President Bush, who was involved in oil ventures in Texas and abroad in the 1980s.

During the presidential campaign, Bush said the nation lacked an energy plan for the eight years of former President Bill Clinton's administration.

The oil and gas industry cemented its ties to the White House with a record $25.6 million in contributions to the GOP, compared with $6.6 million to Democrats during the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Now, after years of feeling neglected by the Clinton administration, the oil and gas industry is eager to move forward on its wish list and has notched a couple of big victories. Oil lobbyists teamed with mining and electric utility interests to help prod Bush to reverse his campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which many scientists say contribute to global warming.

And the White House pleased many leaders in the same industries when Bush announced, to the dismay of European allies, that he was abandoning the Kyoto treaty to limit global warming.

But despite their strong White House links, oil and gas lobbyists face obstacles to realizing several of their other key goals.

Many Democrats and several moderate Republicans have said that the administration is stressing supply-side solutions at the expense of energy efficiency and conservation measures, while playing down the importance of environmental protections.

"They have to pay more attention to renewable [sources], conservation, and energy efficiency," says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee.

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