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Bush's Cabinet Appointments Cast 1,000 Points of Light on Next Energy Policy

Bush's Cabinet Appointments Cast 1,000 Points of Light on Next Energy Policy

Just what can the energy industry expect to encounter under incoming President-elect George W. Bush's administration? The former Midland, TX, oilman, paired with former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, appears to be more open to new exploration and production. Add to that Bush's recent Cabinet picks, and it beams a thousand points of light on what industry may expect in the next four years.

So far, Bush has followed the path of presidents-elect before him, deferring to the incumbent White House and choosing not to offer advice about the current energy problems facing the country. But these issues, which were a large part of his year-long campaign to the presidency, are clearly on his mind.

"We are very worried about the energy problem that's looming for the country," said Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer last week, and noted that California was already "deeply" feeling the effects. Issues such as rising natural gas prices and continued foreign reliance on oil are things Bush's team is "clearly worried about," he said.

Bush, who held court over an economic conference from the Texas Governor's Mansion in Austin, has a transition team preparing policy papers on what his incoming administration wants to accomplish. Among those papers will be a comprehensive report on energy supply, which would then be submitted to Congress, Fleischer said. But the American public probably won't get a clear idea of what's planned before the next president takes office.

Still, Bush's recent announcements for Cabinet posts and White House advisers provide a few clues as to what his energy agenda will propose. One of his campaign themes centered on opening up a portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration. He also wants the United States to move away from relying on foreign oil imports. And then there's the lack of a real energy policy - something critics have said the Clinton Administration failed to address.

Now, however, Republicans control the White House and Congress, and the battle over new exploration and production may become one of Bush's first battles. Clearly, things are about to become more interesting.

In opening remarks before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, Commerce Department designate Don Evans, Bush's campaign manager and a former energy executive himself, pledged to "foster a marketplace where ideas and energy can thrive, where the entrepreneurial spirit indeed will flourish."

Evans, who once worked as an oilfield roughneck and also was CEO of his own energy company, won't even be in charge of one of the departments overseeing aspects of the U.S. energy industry if he is confirmed. But he offers just one more pin in the top-heavy energy structure that Bush has built around him.

Those most likely to play a key role in pushing Bush's energy agenda through - led in no small part by Bush and Cheney - will be the Interior and Energy Cabinet heads and to a smaller extent, Transportation. For Interior, Bush selected former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton. For Energy, Bush reached out to former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, who was defeated in his first re-election bid in November. Bush also selected Norman Mineta, a Democrat and the current secretary of the Commerce Department, to be secretary of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the Office of Pipeline Safety.

The real focus, the people who would be advising, shaping and implementing Bush's energy program within the Cabinet, is on Norton and Abraham. Both are considered conservative Republicans who already have called attention to themselves in recent days because of their outspoken statements on issues their new departments would oversee.

If confirmed, handling controversy should be no problem for Norton, 46, who cut her teeth working under President Ronald Reagan's heavily criticized first Interior Secretary James Watt and Watt's successor Donald Hodel. Norton was hired by Watt for a staff position at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, considered the conservative's answer to the Sierra Club, favoring Western economic interests including mining, timber production and ranching. She also has litigated against the Endangered Species Act, a statute that falls under the Interior Department's jurisdiction.

While working under Hodel, Norton was part of an unsuccessful lobbying attempt in the mid-1980s to persuade Congress, then controlled by Democrats, to open part of the ANWR to exploration. As associate solicitor at Interior, Norton helped draft the legal papers for Hodel's plan to open the coastal plain of ANWR.

Norton, a property rights advocate, has long pushed for a balance between environmental and industrial interests in Colorado, which has a history of growth and land management issues. She has stated that there is an opportunity to make better use of most of the land now under federal authority, including offering more access to business.

As Colorado's first female attorney general, Norton favored changing federal law in 1988 to allow industry to self-audit its environmental pollution activities. Favored by business but discouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the self-audit plan, which allows companies amnesty if they find pollution problems, report them and clean them up, was threatened with federal sanctions.

Norton still outspokenly favored the changes. "Companies are more likely to find out if they have environmental problems if there's some hope regulators will work with them," she said in 1988.

Although Norton has not generated quite as much heat as Bush's choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, she already has been stung by the Sierra Club and others, which have threatened to block her nomination.

Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, said that Norton's appointment "is a throwing down of the gauntlet against the constituency who believes that the federal government needs to lock up more land or wall off existing land from further economic exploitation."

Calling Norton "James Watt in a skirt," Allen Mattison, the Sierra Club's national spokesman, said she would be just as unsympathetic to conservationists as her former Interior bosses. Watt, who eventually resigned, had angered many for attempting to usurp Congressional restrictions to allow more oil and gas exploration in the West.

Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, who met with Norton in pre-confirmation hearings last week, brushed off the environmentalists' comments, saying she would be "superb." He said he foresaw no problems with her confirmation hearings, and said she would "protect the public lands, endangered species and improve parks and recreational opportunities for all Americans."

Edmund Spencer Abraham, "Spence" to his colleagues, is a one-term Michigan senator whom Bush has tapped to run the beleaguered and second-tier Energy Department. Abraham, 48, was considered a dark horse for the post, and ironically, he tried three times in five years while he served in the Senate to abolish the department he may soon head, calling it wasteful, with "no core mission."

In a 1997 opinion article about the Energy Department written for The Washington Times, Abraham said "Energy oversees everything from nuclear waste disposal to energy conservation to corporate welfare. What is not unneeded or harmful in this list would be better secured without Energy's wasteful umbrella organization."

Asked about those comments last week, Abraham was not available. His office said he was traveling. Following his selection, however, Abraham said that "as we know, many significant Energy Department-related issues face us at this time, ranging from the adequacy of supply, to affordability, to the development of new technologies, to the issues of security at our facilities, and more. Fortunately, this administration is comprised of many individuals with incredible expertise in these areas, and I look forward to helping the president-elect to effectively address these challenges in the days ahead."

Although the title of energy secretary appears to carry a lot of weight, this actually has not been the case since the Cabinet-level post was formed in 1977. Its actual mission is to "foster a secure and reliable energy system that is environmentally and economically sustainable, to be a responsible steward of the nation's nuclear weapons, to clean up our own facilities and to support continued U.S. leadership in science and technology."

For instance, current Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has been caught up in nuclear safety at facilities in New Mexico along with many nuclear waste depository issues. However, the energy secretary's role may evolve and take on greater importance in the next administration.

Sen. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called Abraham's selection "great," and said "The Energy Department is a difficult one to manage, but I have every confidence that Sen. Abraham is up to the job." Murkowski has been critical of the lack of an energy policy in the Clinton administration, and has been working on an energy package to send to Congress in the new session.

Saying he will give Abraham his support and confidence, Sen. Murkowski said, "I look forward to working with the new administration and with the new secretary to produce an energy policy that maintains a balanced use of all our resources while working on conservation and moving to alternative fuels and renewable energy."

Skip Horvath, president of the Natural Gas Supply Association (NGSA), said he thought Bush's selection of Abraham for DOE was a good pick. "I think he's going to be good. He comes from a state [Michigan] that is an energy-producing state, so he understands the producing issues pretty well," he said. In addition to producers, "his state really represents all of the other interests of the natural gas industry" --- distribution, pipelines and storage.

Besides working to repeal the Energy Department when he was a Senator, Abraham has not been directly involved in energy issues, either with his work as a U.S. senator or before then. He was the first Michigan Republican elected to the Senate in 22 years. In his one Senate term, he served on the Senate's Budget Committee as well as the Judiciary Committee, where he chaired the subcommittee on immigration. He also served on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee where he chaired the subcommittee on manufacturing and competitiveness. He also was a member of the Small Business Committee.

Along with his Senate committee assignments, Abraham was a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and was on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In his sparse energy-related voting record, Abraham voted against keeping automobile fuel efficiency standards in September 1999, a vote not surprising considering he represented the largest automobile-manufacturing state in the country. He also voted yes on more funding for forest roads and fish habitat (September 1999); defunding renewable and solar energy (June 1999); transportation demonstration projects (March 1998); and approving a nuclear waste depository (April 1997).

A Michigan native, Abraham attended Michigan State University and then Harvard Law School, where he founded the Federalist Society and a conservative law journal. At 30, he became a Republican state chairman, and then in 1990, he joined former President George Bush's administration as deputy chief of staff to former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Abraham favors many of the things his potential new boss favors: free trade, opening ANWR and doing away with many environmental regulations. Last summer, while calling for a suspension of federal gas taxes as prices rose across the Midwest, Abraham took donations from several energy companies for his November re-election bid. According to campaign finance watchdog FECInfo, Abraham had $221,848 in contributions from several energy companies, including $10,000 from El Paso Energy Corp.; $10,000 from Ohio Valley Coal Co.; and $9,000 each from Chevron, Coastal Corp. and Michigan Petroleum.

For the Sierra Club, Abraham's appointment would further add to what it expects will be a hostile environment for natural resources' issues. Sierra Club's Daniel F. Becker, director of its global warming and energy program, said Abraham had received the Club's lowest rating on environmental issues in the last Congress.

Horvath disagreed with critics of Bush's choice for DOE, many whom cited the former senator's lack of direct experience with energy issues. "Somebody from Michigan has energy experience by definition because his state has all the components of the natural gas industry" within its boundaries, he said. "So we think he's pretty well rounded."

Whatever the criticism, it's clear that Harvard Law School grad Abraham has taken a post in a troubled department that many others did not want. With its burgeoning agenda --- keeping track of the U.S.'s weapons laboratories, cleaning up nuclear waste sites and managing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the next Energy chief will have a full plate with extra helpings on the side.

The next energy secretary faces the new challenges of dealing with electricity shortages and energy shortfalls, as well as efforts among OPEC nations to keep the oil prices high. And Abraham, or whoever takes the hot seat, will face the same controversies the Interior chief will on the prospects of opening up ANWR to oil and gas development and finding energy solutions for the entire country amid a nearly deadlocked and potentially uncompromising Congress.

Carolyn Davis, Houston

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