Scarcely 16 hours before President Bush is scheduled to announce its contents to the world, the White House Wednesday night offered reporters a glimpse of the 163-page report prepared for the president by his internal National Energy Policy Development Group.
In a briefing by an individual I am permitted to identify only as "a senior administration official," or ASAO, the secretive White House task force -- helmed by Vice President Cheney and charged with coming up with solutions for what Bush in March called "an energy crisis" -- finally showed a little leg, detailing general outlines and a few details here and there, though certainly not all 105 recommendations.
Yes, ASAO confirmed, despite what Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman was saying a few weeks ago, the Bush administration does intend to seek congressional approval to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Yes, ASAO went on, Bush wants to take a scythe to the dense weeds of federal regulations he thinks are standing between Americans and an answer to their energy needs.
"Outdated regulations have frozen America into an antiquated energy supply network, designed for 1950, not 2050," ASAO said. An example of one of the regs Bush wants to whack can be seen in his desire to weaken a provision of the Clean Air Act so the owners of older power plants can run their plants ASAP without having to invest in cleaning the plants up.
And he wants to go nuclear, ASAO said. Not only does Bush want to build more nuclear power plants and establish a national repository for nuclear waste (I'm guessing that won't be put in Texas), he wants to explore the possibility of once again allowing the use of reprocessed plutonium, which hasn't happened since the late 1970s because of both cost and security concerns.
But, ASAO said, there is a lot in the energy plan that environmentalists can embrace. Like $10 billion in new tax credits for alternative energy sources and to encourage conservation. ASAO said that Bush wants to "establish a temporary efficiency-based income tax credit available between 2002 and 2007 for new, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles" that run on a combination of gasoline and electric power. Somewhere Al Gore is wincing -- Bush continuously mocked then Veep Gore for supporting tax credits for hybrid vehicles during the presidential campaign.
("How many of you own hybrid electric gasoline engine vehicles?" Bush asked on MSNBC's "Hardball" on Oct. 24, 2000. "If you look [in Gore's plan], you'll see that's one of the criterion necessary to receive tax relief. So when he talks about targeted tax relief, that's pretty darn targeted.")
Bush himself now gets pretty darn targeted, directing $1.2 billion of "bid bonuses" from drilling in ANWR toward the funding of research into alternative and renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy. Additionally, Bush wants to direct Whitman to look into what's called "multi-pollutant" legislation to reduce and cap emissions of toxins like sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxides.
Many of the recommendations seem to pass the buck to Whitman, or Energy Secretary Spence Abraham, or others in the Cabinet. One of the diciest energy issues -- improving corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards for cars -- would be passed to Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta for review after the National Academy of Sciences study on the matter is released in July.
Environmentalists, however, look at the proposals -- Bush even wants to reduce truck-idling emissions at truck stops! -- and see a typical corporate America plan with just enough enviro-friendly trimming to fool the gullible.
"In Texas, there's a saying," commented Sierra Club director Carl Pope, reached by phone after the briefing. "If you put boots in the oven that doesn't make them biscuits." Sure, there are parts of the plan Pope approves of -- but on balance he finds it wanting. "They want to commit an America of the 21st century to energy technologies from the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century."
ASAO prefaced the announcement by detailing what Bush has labeled an energy "crisis."
"U.S. energy consumption is projected an increase of 32 percent by 2020," ASAO stated. Where we imported 35 percent of our fuel in 1973, that number is now 55 percent and stands to increase to 67 percent by 2020.
ASAO pointed out that low-income individuals will find more funding for their energy needs, with increased funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and the Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program.
"There's a mix, obviously," ASAO said of the report.
The plan does not address allegations some have raised about various energy corporations raising and, perhaps in some cases, fixing prices. Spokesman Ari Fleischer pointed out that while the issue was apparently so unimportant it didn't merit inclusion in the 105 recommendations, Bush had made remarks addressing the matter earlier in the day. ("I'm calling on the FTC to make sure that nobody in America gets illegally overcharged," Bush said at a Cabinet meeting. "And we're going to make sure FERC will monitor electricity suppliers to make sure that they charge rates that are fair and reasonable.")
Democrats have been asserting that the report is written as if the energy industry itself sat down, took pen to paper and handed a wish list to Cheney. So I asked ASAO: Was there, indeed, anything in the plan that the oil and gas industries wouldn't like? ASAO said that they probably wouldn't like the fact that they didn't get any tax credits, that "every tax incentive is for conservation and renewables." And also, maybe, that Bush wanted to invest $2 billion in clean coal technology research -- a potential competitor.
Not that "renewables" are a major part of the proposal. "You need a perspective," ASAO instructed us. "We need to push for more renewables and alternative fuels, but currently only 2 percent of our electricity needs come from non-hydro-powered renewables."
ASAO also made it pretty clear that there is little in the plan in short-term relief, other than "the quicker you implement this policy, the quicker we're going to get rid of some of the problems like California." Other than one executive order Bush will issue ASAP -- to expedite the federal permit process on the federal side on all energy-related matters -- ASAO didn't think there was much that could be done right away.
"You know," ASAO said, "the other thing I would suggest is that you've got to look at this from the perspective that it's been neglected for a long time. It's going to take some time. There is only two things that can help California right now -- increasing supply or decreasing demand." The expedited permits will help to increase supply, ASAO said.
Twelve of these recommendations will be enacted by executive order -- two of which will happen this week, one mentioned above and the other one directing "all federal agencies to consider energy when they do major regulatory actions." Seventy-three of the report's official suggestions will be in the form of directives to federal agencies. And 20 of the recs will need congressional approval.
The details, with the predictable devils no doubt lurking within, will be formally unleashed Thursday at 11:45 a.m. EST, as Bush takes Air Force One to St. Paul, Minn.