Bush eases energy regulations

Orders cut red tape for permits, raise priority of production

Stand up to critics, he says

May 19, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CONESTOGA, Pa. - With a giant hydroelectric dam rising from the waters behind him, President Bush resumed the salesmanship for his new energy plan yesterday and sought to counter an uproar from those who see the plan as a threat to the nation's natural resources.

"When you hear these folks - it doesn't matter what side of the debate they're on - who are willing to kind of castigate somebody who may have a good idea, stand up to them and let them have it," Bush said, standing in front of Safe Harbor, an electricity-producing dam on the Susquehanna River outside the town of Conestoga.

Bush then signed executive orders that swiftly put into effect two of his ideas and stoked the bitterness of environmentalists and other critics.

One order directs all federal agencies to consider the potential effect on energy supplies before they pass certain regulations. The second directs agencies to speed the permit process for energy projects so they won't become "snarled in bureaucratic tangles."

Bush's actions reflected one of his chief goals: to remove regulatory hurdles so the industry can boost domestic supplies as fast as possible. Both orders were recommended in the energy report the White House released Thursday.

Environmentalists denounced the orders as efforts to weaken their ability to call attention to energy projects that dirty the air or water or threaten wildlife.

"The president spent a lot of time [Thursday] talking about conservation and protecting the environment," said Dan Lashof, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"But then the first two executive orders he signs have the effect of increasing red tape for agencies who want to issue regulations promoting environmental protection, but short-circuiting the review if you want to build an energy facility."

Though the major conflicts over Bush's plan are likely to center on the nation's leading sources of energy - oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power - critics said a hydroelectric dam was a suitable place to raise their objections.

The battle lines drawn over the dam underscore the tug of war between the industry and conservationists over energy policy that could become one of the defining battles of Bush's presidency.

Less time to study threats

Hydroelectric dams must be re-licensed by the government every 35 to 50 years. Before licenses are renewed, environmental groups can propose ways to alter a dam to lessen any threat to the river or fish. Often, for example, groups will suggest that dams install "ladders" to help fish pass through and return to spawning grounds.

Environmentalists argue that Bush's orders will give them less time to study a particular dam. And they say his approach will allow power companies to avoid making environmentally conscious modifications by claiming that the changes would be too costly and would force them to produce less power.

"We are not talking about an enormous amount of energy to be gained by short-cutting some common-sense environmental protections," said Eric Eckl, a spokesman for the advocacy group American Rivers.

"And the licensing process is the only place where they have to balance the output of power with other social needs that depend on the river."

Baltimore's power source

Bush visited Safe Harbor to spotlight a dam that has received generally positive reviews from environmentalists and to promote his theme that energy production and the protection of natural resources need not conflict.

Safe Harbor has multimillion-dollar fish lifts that allow shad, which migrate upriver to spawn, to make it safely over the dam.

The dam, partly owned by a subsidiary of Constellation Energy Group, supplies power to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which is also owned by Constellation.

Safe Harbor, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Baltimore, is not scheduled to be re-licensed until 2030. But White House officials say dams elsewhere have been forced to undergo such a prolonged environmental review and have had to make such costly modifications that shutting them down has been considered.

Andrew D. Lundquist, executive director of Bush's energy task force, said Bush wants to streamline re-licensing to better balance environmental needs and the need to produce more electricity for Americans beset by high prices.

Orders please industry

Representatives of the hydropower industry applauded the orders. Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, said she hoped that federal agencies would now have to make sure that environmental requirements for dams are "based on sound science and that they look at alternative ways of getting there that could perhaps be less costly or have less impact on the energy output."

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