San Diego Union-Tribune

July 17, 2001

A-1

Bush's top team launches blitz for his energy agenda
  Plan has stagnated as crisis diminishes

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

MONROEVILLE, Pa. -- Seeking to reignite President Bush's push for a new energy policy, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials yesterday warned that the nation still faces significant challenges despite recent drops in gasoline prices and California's easing power woes.

Cheney and members of Bush's Cabinet fanned out across the nation to
promote the administration's plans for more oil, coal and nuclear power
production. At the same time, they tried to deflect criticism of the plan by
stressing elements that would promote conservation and renewable energy
sources.

"The fact of the matter is that we are now dependent and will be dependent
for the foreseeable future on petroleum products for our transportation
needs," said Cheney, who was battling laryngitis as he addressed a town
hall-style meeting here.

The vice president yesterday strongly advocated energy conservation, a
notion he once famously dismissed as a "personal virtue."

"Most of the financial incentives we recommend are in the area of
conservation and renewables," said the architect of the administration plan.
"We're not advocating subsidies for oil companies and coal companies and
gas companies."

But environmental activists, who protested outside the event, continued their
attack on the policy. They say it is tilted toward more production of fossil
fuels at the expense of innovative approaches to fuel efficiency and alternative
power sources such as the wind and the sun.

"America really needs clean energy solutions, not more pollution," said
Morgan Sheets, an activist with the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research
Group. The administration plan, she told reporters, relies on "unreliable,
unsustainable, dirty sources of power."

The administration's renewed energy campaign comes at a time when the
policy has been slowed by a combination of political and economic forces.
They range from the Democratic takeover of the Senate to falling gasoline
prices to a stabilized electricity market in California.

Cheney took about a dozen questions in the humid gymnasium at the
Community College of Allegheny County, outside Pittsburgh. With his voice
suffering, Cheney handed off some of his speaking and answering chores to
aides and politicians who joined him on stage.

In response to a question about the administration's promotion of expanded
nuclear power, Cheney said it could reduce global warming and has an
improved safety record.

A man in the audience who identified himself as a member of the senior
citizens advocacy group AARP said older residents were paying higher
electricity bills because of the state's deregulation of the power industry. The
Bush administration, which supports the move toward open electricity
markets, has held Pennsylvania up as an example of successful deregulation,
contrasting it with California's disastrous experience.

"We feel that since the deregulation that we are in the same position (with
power companies) as we are dealing with OPEC," said the AARP member,
referring to foreign oil-producing countries.

Cheney handed the question over to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who said power prices in Pennsylvania have gone from 15 percent above the national average before deregulation to as much as 4 percent below it since the markets opened up.

While the audience may not have been completely friendly, the administration
chose favorable turf to deliver its message. Investing in clean-coal technology
and increasing coal use -- a major part of the Bush plan -- is a big pocketbook issue in this mining state, which Bush narrowly lost in last year's
election.

"We need a shot in the arm for those counties" that are dependent on mining,
said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who joined Cheney on the stage.

Cabinet members held similar meetings, but none on the West Coast. EPA
Administrator Christie Whitman was in Connecticut, Commerce Secretary
Don Evans in North Carolina, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in
Ohio, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in Illinois and Interior Secretary
Gale Norton in South Dakota.

Bush unveiled the energy policy with much fanfare in May, marking it as a
central initiative of his young administration. But two months later, major
elements of the proposal are languishing, notably efforts to expand oil
exploration and drilling on federal lands, including Alaska's Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge.

From the start, polls showed that Americans felt the policy was too heavily
tilted toward expanding energy production rather than conservation, and that
it favored corporate interests over the environment. Many on Capitol Hill
were wary of embracing the plan.

A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that 45 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the energy issue.

But the energy crisis atmosphere of earlier this year has largely dissipated,
robbing the Bush plan of momentum.

"The only thing that will be able to revive it is $3-per-gallon gasoline. As
energy prices decrease, the steam goes out of the issue," said Marshall
Wittmann, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington,
D.C.

Though the administration scored a victory on the energy front last week
when the Senate blocked an effort to halt new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,
Wittmann predicted that, barring some new crisis, Bush will get little of what
he wants from Congress. Indeed, the Senate also voted to block energy
production at national monuments and the House voted to ban drilling in the
Great Lakes.

The idea of allowing oil and gas exploration in the arctic refuge has been
moribund for some time on Capitol Hill.

"Congress has no stomach to tackle the energy issue," Wittmann said.

He added that the administration will get an energy plan out of Congress, but
"it just won't be very substantive."