Magazine article Nieman Reports

Energy and Politics: The Stories Never End: 'If I Could Stomach Dealing with BTU's and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, My Job Would Never Be Dull.'

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Energy and Politics: The Stories Never End: 'If I Could Stomach Dealing with BTU's and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, My Job Would Never Be Dull.'

Article excerpt

In March 2001, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's main conference hall buzzed with Washington lobbyists. They were there to hear a speech by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham--the first public preview of the Bush administration's national energy strategy. For these powerful energy lobbyists, the speech confirmed that the White House was delivering on its promise to make life easier for the coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power industries in the United States. As journalists later learned, some of those business representatives had privately met with White House officials and had helped shape the strategy.

As an energy reporter jammed in the back of the room, shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other scribes and TV crews, the event was an "ah-ha" moment. The enthused reaction of the inside-the-beltway crowd and the pro-industry language in the speech signaled the emergence of a new era of federal energy policy. In fact, energy issues have served as a significant subplot in the war-dominated chronicle of the Bush administration. Long before President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney stepped into the West Wing, the two had served as energy industry executives and were sympathetic to the energy industry arguments. Since taking office, they have included energy issues in their decision-making on a variety of military, political and environmental matters.

Energy, economics and environmental policy have long been inextricably intertwined. At least that's how a National Journal editor explained it to me in the late 1980's when he talked me into adding the magazine's energy-portfolio to my environmental beat. The late Dick Corrigan, who had written about energy and environment for The Washington Post and the National Journal, made me a promise. If I could stomach dealing with BTU's and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, my job would never be dull. It's an assessment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Politics and Energy

In some ways, covering the Bush administration's energy policy began with the 2000 presidential race. Political pundits noted that Bush carried West Virginia, usually a Democratic stronghold, by promising to support the state's coal industry. In fact the Bush/Cheney ticket, which vowed to champion the interests of the extraction industries, did well in most energy producing states in the South and Rocky Mountain West.

But it became clear how much energy would win out, especially over environmental policy, once the administration's 2001 energy policy report was released. Among other things, it spelled out plans to expand oil and gas development on millions of acres of federal lands, including wild regions that had been protected by the Clinton administration. It also confirmed the administration's intention to ease environmental controls on older coal-fired power plants.

Congressional Republicans have incorporated many of Bush's energy proposals into their omnibus energy packages, which have included billions of dollars in energy-related tax incentives, two-thirds of which would go to the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries. But for the past three years, that legislation has been entangled in political wrangling in the Senate and recently raised new deficit-reduction concerns at the White House. Instead of waiting for Congress, Bush has made significant headway in reshaping national energy policy by working under the public radar screen, reinterpreting and rewriting the little-noticed federal land-use and environmental protection regulations in the name of energy development.

Many of the administration's energy maneuvers have been complex, technical and almost impossible to track. But from a policy wonk's perspective, a few have been fascinating. Take the administration's efforts to resurrect nuclear power. During the 2000 presidential campaign in Nevada, the Republicans won the state by promising that Bush would never use Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a permanent dump for the radioactive waste piling up at the nation's 110 commercial nuclear power plants--unless the proposal was based on the "best scientific evidence. …

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