Oil dispute hindering U.S. policy on energy

Arctic refuge debate main stumbling block

Enron case also looms

January 27, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - There can be no doubt, both President Bush and Democrats say, that America is in desperate need of a policy to prevent an energy crisis.

Both agree, too, that the nation must wean itself from oil from the Middle East, where political volatility can affect supplies. That without conservation, Americans could face a future of blackouts and price shocks. And that the environment is at risk because dirty fossil fuels will remain dominant for decades.

Yet as the Senate prepares to take up a debate on energy, the challenge of producing a comprehensive energy policy and sending it to the president this year seems to be getting harder, not easier.

The main impediment, lawmakers and administration officials say, is a fight over a far-flung swath of land in northern Alaska - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.

Bush and other Republicans want to open the environmentally sensitive refuge to drilling to take advantage of the vast reservoir of oil and natural gas there.

But Democrats say that doing so would spoil one of America's last pristine landscapes.

With each side refusing to budge on that issue, a broad national energy policy seems elusive.

Another stumbling block could be the scandal surrounding the bankrupt Enron Corp., which critics say has exposed Bush's close ties to big energy companies. Some Democrats, such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, have argued that the White House energy plan, crafted by a task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, was all but written by industry giants such as Enron, whose officials were welcomed in the White House.

One GOP congressional aide said Republicans fear that the Enron debacle gives Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democrats a way to discredit the president, a former Texas oilman who accepted large campaign contributions from the Houston-based company. That would enable the Democrats to block a full hearing on the entire docket of energy proposals that Bush sent to Congress.

"This is giving Daschle an out to shut down the whole process," the aide said.

Pre-emptive strike

Anticipating such a strategy, Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, fired a pre-emptive strike, arguing last week that "it is wrong for Democrats to use a very necessary investigation of Enron to advance a political agenda against the president's energy policy that is totally unrelated."

The idea of drilling in the Alaska refuge is just one item in Bush's overall energy plan. But it has become the flash point in the debate. Both parties are playing to their constituencies, taking hard-line positions on the issue and ruling out any compromise.

The politicking could divert attention from such matters as deciding how to conserve energy use in homes and businesses and how to make automobiles more fuel efficient.

"This is a very polarizing issue," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The advocates of opening ANWR are extremely committed. The opponents are staunchly committed. We just have to somehow get this issue resolved."

Warning of crisis

Those who see the need for a comprehensive new energy policy argue that the nation faces a crisis that demands solutions.

They contend that the United States depends too heavily on oil from unstable nations. Energy costs are so high, they say, that any price spikes in oil from the Middle East could make it harder for people to afford electricity and might trigger a global recession.

"Every year that goes by without a coherent strategy for addressing this is reducing our chances of getting our hands around it in time," said John Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Why should we let an argument about [the refuge] stop us from doing a whole range of very sensible things?"

If an energy bill fails, it would prevent the president from scoring a victory on an issue he identified last year as a cherished priority of his first term.

"This nation needs an energy policy," Bush said last week in West Virginia. "Jobs depend on affordable energy. And it's in our nation's national security interests that we become less dependent on foreign sources of energy."

With fanfare, the president unveiled his energy package in a speech in May. Like the Democrats, he said he favored exploring new ways to conserve energy. But he put more emphasis on expanding the nation's supply of fossil fuels. One of the great untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas, he noted, lies beneath Alaska's North Slope.

The Republican-led House passed much of Bush's package last year - including opening a small portion of the Arctic refuge on its coastal plain - in a close vote along party lines.

In the Senate, Democrats have proposed an alternative package. Their version focuses more on conservation than on fossil fuels, but in many ways it mirrors Bush's plan. Notably, the Democratic plan does not call for drilling in the Alaskan refuge.

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