Barton Defends Inclusion of ANWR in Energy Strategy

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) last week defended President Bush's energy policy strategy against criticism that it's fixated on drilling in the Alaska arctic while giving short shift to the nation's more pressing energy concerns.

Advocating drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a "huge distraction from the most important energy policy issues that we need to address this year and next year," Ed Smelloff, executive director of the Pace Law School Energy Project, told Barton during a panel discussion on energy policy issues broadcast on National Public Radio last Tuesday.

It "really makes no sense from an environmental, economic or energy perspective" to make drilling in ANWR the "centerpiece" of an administration energy bill, said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington D.C. advocacy group for the preservation of endangered species. There are only 180-270 days worth of oil in the arctic to satisfy U.S. energy consumption needs, and it wouldn't be available for probably 10 years, he noted.

"I think [the] use of the word 'centerpiece'...may be overstating the case," countered Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee. ANWR "doesn't necessarily have to be a centerpiece" of an administration or congressional bill, "but it could actually be part" of it.

"I think you're going to see President Bush and [the] congressional leadership be 'ecumenical' in terms of where the energy supply comes from," he said, adding that comprehensive legislation would include provisions on nuclear energy, alternative fuels, increased use of coal, oil, natural gas and conservation measures. He said he also supports greater access to public lands for producers, and tax incentives to encourage more oil and gas drilling.

The House won't take up energy legislation until after Vice President Richard Cheney's task force releases its initial recommendations for an administration energy initiative, Barton said. At that time, "we'll sit down with him [Cheney] and we'll decide what can be done short term, and whether we need a big bill or several little bills to start the ball rolling." In the meantime, Barton's subcommittee plans to hold hearings on electricity restructuring --- one was held last Thursday --- and on "what I call an energy inventory of this country." The Senate has postponed unveiling its energy bill until later this month.

"I agree with President Bush that if there are economically recoverable reserves in ANWR, we should attempt to produce those," Barton said. Unlike Schlickeisen, Barton believes ANWR holds great potential for oil and gas consumers in the Lower 48 states. It's "possible it could be the third largest oil field ever discovered in North America and one of the 10 largest in the world."

The House lawmaker estimated there's potentially enough oil in ANWR to supply up to a million and a half barrels per day over a 30-year period, as well as abundant supplies of natural gas. He believes drilling and production can be accomplished in an environmentally sensitive manner.

But considerable doubt exists as to whether there are enough votes in Congress to get through a bill that includes opening ANWR to drilling.

Smelloff said California should be at the top of the administration's energy agenda now rather than ANWR. "There is a need for the federal government through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to step in while the markets are not competitive, stabilize the situation and protect ratepayers from being gouged" by the independent power producers (IPPs) that have no obligation to serve, he said.

Unless this happens, "you're going to see a very unhappy America West of the Rockies" this summer, Smelloff warned. "The California problem is not going to be isolated in California. Come this summer, we are going to have a major West Coast problem."

Drilling in ANWR "has nothing whatsoever to do with the California situation," he said. But the two issues "are being connected by unfortunately President Bush as a way of promoting drilling in the arctic."

Smelloff laid much of the blame for the recent power outages in California on the IPPs. "When the utilities owned the power plants, they coordinated" their schedules for maintenance shutdowns "so that there would be sufficient power plants left in reserve to assure reliability. But now that the power plants have been sold off to independent power producers there's no joint scheduling," he said. He further contends that IPPs are doing less preventive maintenance on their generation facilities, prompting more plant outages to occur.

That's "absolute poppycock" to fault the IPPs for not properly maintaining their generation plants, countered Barton. "These independent power producers have...been forced by the government of California to keep their plants running when it's probably unsafe to do so." He noted that 40% of the generation plants in the state are at least 30 years old, and about 20% of them are more than 40 years old.

Unlike most experts, Smelloff claims that California has more than enough generation capacity within its boundaries (47,000 MWs) to meet peak winter demand (30,000 MWs). "That's simply not true," Barton shot back, saying the figures from FERC and the California Public Utilities Commission tell a much different story.

Angela Antonelli of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said she hopes the California power crisis doesn't put a damper on electric deregulation in other states. "It certainly shouldn't mean less enthusiasm for deregulation because what was done in California was not deregulation. What it was was a restructuring of the market, and it was a terrible restructuring of the market."

The current turmoil in California's power market is "definitely California's fault," because while the state deregulated the wholesale end, it failed to deregulate the retail side and neglected to emphasize conservation measures, she noted. It would be "unfortunate if other states look at California and decide not to deregulate."

Unlike others, Barton doesn't believe the problems facing the energy industry in the United States have reached crisis proportion. "There's no energy crisis," he said. "We've got a supply and perhaps a consumption problem, but it can be solved." If fact, he believes the U.S. can become energy independent in every area except oil. Susan Parker

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