Bush Hints at Big Changes In Energy Policy

President-elect George W. Bush, a former oil driller, signaled last week that he plans to move energy issues to center stage when he arrives in Washington, focusing on oil and natural gas exploration and production and opening up more federal lands to carry out these activities.

He indicated several issues that have long been on the energy industry's "wish list" --- greater access to public lands for drilling, an expedited process at FERC for approving more expansion of pipeline capacity, a more favorable investment climate for expanding power generation capacity and an easing of environmental restrictions --- will receive top priority under his administration.

"I strongly believe that we must work in concert to increase the amount of supply available for American consumers - supply of natural gas, supply of coal, supply of plant and equipment," The Los Angeles Times quoted Bush as saying during a press conference in Austin, TX, last week. The nation currently is "undersupplied" and demand is escalating, resulting in runaway prices, he noted.

On another energy issue, California Gov. Gray Davis spoke by telephone with President-elect George W. Bush last Thursday about the problems in the state's electricity market. "He found that the president-elect was well informed of the situation here in California, and the two pledged to mutually work together to manage the problem," said a press aide for the governor.

"I don't think the talks got that specific," the aide noted, when asked if Bush and Gov. Davis discussed possible remedies.

With the changing of the guard soon to occur at the White House, Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and four other Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee have called on President Clinton to refrain from enacting any regulations that could place off limits even more federal lands for natural gas and oil producers. Such action would only aggravate the current gas price and supply crisis, they said.

Specifically, Murkowski and the senators are concerned the U.S. Forest Service may try to put into effect before Clinton leaves office regulations that would set aside 40 million acres of "roadless" areas in the National Forest System, effectively prohibiting drilling, mining and logging on them. In addition, there are a number of other actions pending that aren't friendly to gas production and transportation, a committee aide said. Some House Republicans, for example, are keeping close tabs on possible White House efforts to declare the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) a national monument.

Conspicuously absent from Bush's remarks last week was ANWR. He vowed during his campaign to open about 8% of ANWR to responsible E&P activity, but whether Bush will be able to carry through on his promise remains to be seen. Efforts to open up ANWR to drilling have been on and off again since Bush's father was president in the early 1990s. He is certain to get a lot of opposition from Democrats in Congress on this issue.

In a Dec. 15 letter to Clinton, Murkowski and the four Republican senators urged the president to "consider the effect of regulatory actions taken during the closing days of your administration on the safe production, transportation and distribution of natural gas to American consumers." Given the "present natural gas price crisis, we ask that no actions be taken that would harm natural gas supplies."

The Clinton administration's "roadless" policy could have "severe implications" for gas markets, the lawmakers warned. "We respectfully request that your roadless policy clearly allow for the exploration, development and transportation of clean-burning natural gas."

In light of the current supply-demand imbalance for gas, Murkowski and the senators believe it will be critical for the next Congress to craft policies that will make more gas supplies available to the public. Until then, "we ask that you [Clinton] work to make sure the federal government does not harm consumers."

Susan Parker

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