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Battle lines drawn over energy plan: Increased drilling sharpens debate

By Naftali Bendavid
Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2001, pp. 1 and 23.

WASHINGTON -- Leaders of some of America's most powerful business groups gathered this week in a small room at a Marriott hotel to declare their support for the sort of industry-friendly energy plan President Bush is expected to release this month.

Members of the coalition, including such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, said they have a $1.5 million budget and have begun running newspaper ads. "We want to be heard early and often," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The coalition's announcement foreshadows the coming fight over Bush's energy plan, a critical battle for environmentalists and industry groups. Due out in mid-May, the report's recommendations are expected to include controversial measures ranging from drilling in the wilderness to investing in nuclear power plants to easing environmental rules.

The debate will largely revolve around one question: Can the country escape its energy problems, as Bush has insisted since the campaign, largely by opening the spigot--churning out more oil, gas, coal and nuclear power? Or should conservation and energy efficiency play central roles?

"It's our job to kill the policy if it's bad or make it better if it's somewhat bad," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "We're prepared for both."

The fight, in fact, is already under way.

The Alliance for Energy & Economic Growth, the business group that announced its existence this week, is made up of groups with millions of members, and alliance leaders made little secret of their intention to flex those muscles.

"We have been doing mailings, posting information on our Web sites, going on talk radio," said Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business Survival Committee. "We are getting our members to share with us how high energy prices are impacting their businesses, and part of our effort will be asking our members to bring their stories to members of Congress."

The previews are in

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, has begun running newspaper ads, including one that describes wilderness threatened by oil drilling and concludes, "Americans didn't vote for this." Other groups are airing spots on Sunday television talk shows.

Environmentalist leaders have been visiting news organizations to provide negative previews of the Bush plan. And on Thursday, some religious leaders with an environmentalist stance staged a protest at the Department of Energy.

"We have to be ready," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "We know what the situation's going to be, we know what cards are going to be on the table."

These efforts face an uncertain Congress awaiting the Bush plan. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Ala.) has introduced a complex energy bill, and many of Bush's recommendations may be tacked onto it. Democrats have introduced their own version, focusing more on conservation.

"There is going to be a titanic struggle, a titanic conflict, between the Democrats and Republicans over energy policy," predicted Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee.

In the end, the side that presents itself as most centrist--favoring both conservation and exploration for new sources--may be the victor.

"The key word here is balance," said David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. "It's the word everybody uses to describe their own plan. What it says to me is that everyone is striving for the middle here."

Battle tactics

As part of that effort, each side also paints the other as extremist. Environmentalists portray Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who is heading the administration's energy efforts, as oilmen bent on wrecking the environment.

Bush's supporters say the environmentalists are naive obstructionists.

"Their bottom line is `No, no, no, no, no,'" said Charli Coon, an energy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "There is a problem, and the president is looking for a solution. The environmentalists don't have a solution."

The Sierra Club's Becker responds, "Their main thrust is the pillage-and plunder approach to energy policy."

The debate's most vivid symbol is likely to be the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a spectacular Alaskan region of snow-capped mountains and coastal lagoons that is home to herds of caribou and packs of wolves. Environmentalists argue that it is folly to drill for oil there, as Bush envisions, but the administration insists only a minuscule section would be affected.

Boosting production

More broadly, Bush's prescription for the nation's energy woes is straightforward: After years of neglect in the Clinton years, he argues, the nation needs to boost fuel production. It needs to pump more oil, drill for additional natural gas, encourage the use of coal and promote nuclear power.

Environmentalists respond that no matter how much fuel it churns out, the U.S. can produce only a fraction of the energy it burns.

Instead of responsibly stressing long-term solutions, such as energy efficiency and alternative fuels, they say, the White House is generating a crisis atmosphere to ram through anti-environmental laws.

This is not an easy issue politically for Bush, and the usually disciplined White House has stumbled a few times on energy issues. Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman, for example, recently said the Bush's energy plan would not include drilling in the Arctic refuge; White House spokesman Ari Fleischer contradicted her the next day.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has urged his brother's administration to prevent drilling off Florida's shoreline. But the Interior Department appears poised to allow it.

Talk of easing sanctions

And the president recently found himself explaining reports that the White House is considering easing sanctions on hostile oil producers such as Libya and Iran.

"It's one thing to consider, it's another thing to act on sanctions," Bush said. "I don't intend to do that anytime soon."

The White House has been criticized for the way Cheney's energy task force has operated. The group, including several Cabinet secretaries, meets once a week, and conservationists say the process has been closed.

"The process is eerily reminiscent of the way Bill Clinton's administration and Hillary Rodham Clinton put together its health-care plan--behind closed doors, with little consultation with Congress, very little consultation with environmental groups," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

A White House official dismissed that criticism. "This process has been open, deliberative and transparent," he said.

But both sides do agree that the nation needs to act quickly.

"We're at a moment in time where we've seen, because of what's going on in California, that our energy infrastructure has hit its limit," Callahan said. "We have to make a choice now. We literally have to make a choice right now."