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

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

It “really makes no sense from an environmental, economic orenergy perspective” to make drilling in ANWR the “centerpiece” ofan administration energy bill, said Rodger Schlickeisen, presidentof the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington D.C. advocacy group forthe preservation of endangered species. There are only 180-270 daysworth of oil in the arctic to satisfy U.S. energy consumptionneeds, and it wouldn’t be available for probably 10 years, henoted.

“I think [the] use of the word ‘centerpiece’…may beoverstating the case,” countered Barton, chairman of the HouseEnergy and Air Quality Subcommittee. ANWR “doesn’t necessarily haveto 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 theenergy supply comes from,” he said, adding that comprehensivelegislation would include provisions on nuclear energy, alternativefuels, increased use of coal, oil, natural gas and conservationmeasures. He said he also supports greater access to public landsfor producers, and tax incentives to encourage more oil and gasdrilling.

The House won’t take up energy legislation until after VicePresident Richard Cheney’s task force releases its initialrecommendations for an administration energy initiative, Bartonsaid. At that time, “we’ll sit down with him [Cheney] and we’lldecide what can be done short term, and whether we need a big billor several little bills to start the ball rolling.” In themeantime, Barton’s subcommittee plans to hold hearings onelectricity restructuring — one was held last Thursday — and on”what I call an energy inventory of this country.” The Senate haspostponed unveiling its energy bill until later this month.

“I agree with President Bush that if there are economicallyrecoverable reserves in ANWR, we should attempt to produce those,”Barton said. Unlike Schlickeisen, Barton believes ANWR holds greatpotential for oil and gas consumers in the Lower 48 states. It’s”possible it could be the third largest oil field ever discoveredin North America and one of the 10 largest in the world.”

The House lawmaker estimated there’s potentially enough oil inANWR to supply up to a million and a half barrels per day over a30-year period, as well as abundant supplies of natural gas. Hebelieves drilling and production can be accomplished in anenvironmentally sensitive manner.

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

Smelloff said California should be at the top of theadministration’s energy agenda now rather than ANWR. “There is aneed for the federal government through the Federal EnergyRegulatory Commission (FERC) to step in while the markets are notcompetitive, stabilize the situation and protect ratepayers frombeing gouged” by the independent power producers (IPPs) that haveno obligation to serve, he said.

Unless this happens, “you’re going to see a very unhappy AmericaWest of the Rockies” this summer, Smelloff warned. “The Californiaproblem is not going to be isolated in California. Come thissummer, we are going to have a major West Coast problem.”

Drilling in ANWR “has nothing whatsoever to do with theCalifornia situation,” he said. But the two issues “are beingconnected by unfortunately President Bush as a way of promotingdrilling in the arctic.”

Smelloff laid much of the blame for the recent power outages inCalifornia on the IPPs. “When the utilities owned the power plants,they coordinated” their schedules for maintenance shutdowns “sothat there would be sufficient power plants left in reserve toassure reliability. But now that the power plants have been soldoff to independent power producers there’s no joint scheduling,” hesaid. He further contends that IPPs are doing less preventivemaintenance on their generation facilities, prompting more plantoutages to occur.

That’s “absolute poppycock” to fault the IPPs for not properlymaintaining their generation plants, countered Barton. “Theseindependent power producers have…been forced by the government ofCalifornia to keep their plants running when it’s probably unsafeto do so.” He noted that 40% of the generation plants in the stateare at least 30 years old, and about 20% of them are more than 40years old.

Unlike most experts, Smelloff claims that California has morethan 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 CaliforniaPublic Utilities Commission tell a much different story.

Angela Antonelli of the Heritage Foundation, a conservativethink-tank, said she hopes the California power crisis doesn’t puta damper on electric deregulation in other states. “It certainlyshouldn’t mean less enthusiasm for deregulation because what wasdone in California was not deregulation. What it was was arestructuring of the market, and it was a terrible restructuring ofthe market.”

The current turmoil in California’s power market is “definitelyCalifornia’s fault,” because while the state deregulated thewholesale end, it failed to deregulate the retail side andneglected to emphasize conservation measures, she noted. It wouldbe “unfortunate if other states look at California and decide notto deregulate.”

Unlike others, Barton doesn’t believe the problems facing theenergy industry in the United States have reached crisisproportion. “There’s no energy crisis,” he said. “We’ve got asupply and perhaps a consumption problem, but it can be solved.” Iffact, he believes the U.S. can become energy independent in everyarea except oil. Susan Parker

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