Energy battle heats up in Congress

Thanks to the Enron scandal, Democrats smell blood in the fight over Bush's energy plan. But could they end up scuffling with one another?

By Anthony York
Published February 6, 2002 12:19AM (EST)

President Bush's energy plan may soon provide the turf for the most openly partisan battling since Sept. 11. But the energy-plan drama, set to open in the Senate next week, is rife with subplots: Everything from the Alaska governor's race to November's midterm congressional elections to the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries could ultimately be affected by the wrangling.

Thanks to the Enron scandal and the disgraced company's shadowy role in crafting the Bush energy plan, Democrats think the arcane details of energy policy -- fuel cells and CAFE standards and tax incentives for conservation -- could help them target the Achilles' heel of a wartime president who otherwise seems invulnerable. And not surprisingly, Democrats with presidential ambitions are leading the attack. "Obviously it's an oil-disposed administration, and it's reflected in their policies," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told Salon in a telephone interview. "These are oil men, and any interest that has invested in the status quo is going to resist."

Kerry made headlines last month when he took on the White House in a speech to the Center for National Policy in which he proposed the United States wean itself from oil dependency. Kerry said his speech was timed to "frame the energy debate" and rally public support in what promises to be one of Washington's biggest political battles in the coming weeks.

But Kerry's speech was also read by many as the opening salvo of a 2004 presidential bid. Not only was it an effort to establish his green credentials for environmentalists who will be casting votes in Democratic primaries in a couple of years, it also seemed tailor-made for most political battleground states. For example, Kerry wants to continue government subsidies for ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is the sacred cow of Iowa farmers. He also seemed to have the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia on his mind when he talked about coal. Environmentalists blast coal as a prime polluter, but Kerry said the government should continue to fund research into ways to burn coal that won't hurt the environment.

"We must invest federal money in researching how that coal can be mined and burned to do the least environmental damage possible," he said.

As if to underscore the political importance of the coal-producing states, on the same day Kerry made his speech in Washington, President Bush was in West Virginia rallying support for his energy plan.

"In order to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy, we've got to find and produce more energy at home, including coal," Bush said. But Bush's energy plan does not dedicate any new money to clean-burning coal technology.

The one pivotal state Kerry is sure to have alienated is Michigan, where the auto industry enjoys strong support from members of both parties. The Big Three auto makers continue to maintain that increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will lead to a reduction in jobs, an increase in the cost of a new car and the production of lighter vehicles that are less safe.

"The biggest issue for us is going to be CAFE legislation," General Motors spokesman Michael Morrissey told the Detroit Free Press. "We know that if it is done improperly an increase in CAFE standards will pose a real risk to auto safety, cost lives and increase traffic injuries."

But Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, said the opposition of the Big Three has more to do with their bottom line than any safety concerns. "They say we can't chew gum and walk at the same time," he said. "If we have to put this on the vehicles, we can't possibly spend the time and effort to come up with new technologies for the future. It's complete nonsense."

Kerry's speech, and the slow crawl of the energy debate toward the front pages, comes as a welcome development for environmental groups, many of which have been at a loss for how to gain attention for their issues since Sept. 11. "Sen. Kerry laid out a balanced energy plan that will give us quicker, cleaner, cheaper and safer energy solutions than President Bush has proposed," said Becker. "The president's proposal is to pillage the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to keep gas-guzzling SUVs running."

Many of the proposals in Kerry's speech will wind up in the Energy Policy Act of 2002, sponsored by another possible presidential contender, Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But a Kerry spokeswoman said it would be a mistake to read her boss's speech as an effort to outflank the Senate leader in seizing on a volatile campaign issue.

"He's been working very closely with them," Kerry spokeswoman Kelly Benander said of her boss's coordination with Daschle and Bingaman. "He meant for his speech to be more of a vision for his recommendations. Clearly, there are policy initiatives which will stem from that, but he strongly supports the Democratic alternative." Benander said Kerry would "focus on the areas where he has jurisdiction," in legislation to be introduced in the Commerce and Finance Committees, "and he envisions those things as complementary" to the Daschle-Bingaman bill.

Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Energy Committee, says that the new economic realities post-Sept. 11 may scuttle many of Kerry's plans for tax credits for conservation and development of new, green technology. "There's not a great deal of money to fund tax credits now," Wicker says. "But Sen. Kerry will be involved in the Finance Committee's work on the bill and providing tax credits for the priorities in the bill."

The Daschle-Bingaman bill is scheduled to make its way to the Senate floor in March, but not before Kerry adds what may be the bill's most controversial proposal in committee hearings set for next week -- requiring auto makers to improve the fuel economy standards of their cars and trucks.

Daschle has left the heavy lifting on some of the most controversial parts of his bill, like the CAFE standards, to Kerry. That might look like a difference in priorities between the two Democrats. But Scott Stoermer, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, insists they are engaged in a choreographed political dance: Kerry, who comes from a state with a history of strong environmentalism, can afford to take a more aggressive stance, while Daschle must take a more measured stand, both because he is from a more moderate state and because of his role as Democratic leader.

"If you've got Kerry leading the charge on these issues, it gives Daschle more room to maneuver," he said. "The end result is that the final product will be something a lot more environmentally friendly and something that will really help the Democrats take advantage of the high margin that they enjoy with voters on the environment and energy."

Bush's refusal to budge on the CAFE standards issue is one of the areas where Kerry plans to confront Bush head-on, but he will have to overcome some opposition from members of his own party as well. The Big Three auto makers, with help from both Democrats and Republicans in Michigan's Congressional delegation, have successfully killed any proposed increase in CAFE standards for the last six years.

But there are signs that the administration may be willing to strike a deal. A "senior administration official" told the Wall Street Journal that while the White House won't increase fuel standards for the 2004 model year, an increase for 2005 could be announced later this year.

That isn't good enough for environmental groups, who accuse the Bush White House, like the Clinton administration before it, of caving in to the powerful auto manufacturers' lobby. Hopes that the administration would compromise on a deal to raise fuel efficiency standards for American cars were dashed earlier this month when the administration endorsed a plan to support fuel-cell technology. The plan will offer tax credits to develop fuel cells, which draw power from hydrogen and emit only water vapor and heat. Environmentalists called the fuel-cell plan a cheap substitute for a spike in the CAFE standards.

"It was pretty transparent that they were trying to substitute a sham program that is doomed to fail on fuel cells for a well-established, highly successful program to require the auto companies to put technology on their vehicles," said Becker. "Fuel cells are great. The problem is that the administration's plan doesn't require that the auto companies make these vehicles for sale. So, they're going to get a taxpayer subsidy, they're going to get to claim that they're doing something for cleaner vehicles, but in fact there's no requirement that they actually produce these vehicles."

"I think it absolutely is meant as an alternative to CAFE," said the LCV's Scott Stoermer. "It's one of these proposals that this administration has become famous for because it's got no teeth in it. It just exists on paper and has absolutely no bearing on reality."

Becker said the Bush proposal was eerily similar to a compromise measure reached by auto makers and the Clinton administration to build hybrid vehicles. That deal gave over $1.5 billion in tax credits to auto makers and researchers to develop cars that ran on a mixture of gasoline and electricity but did not require those cars to be put up for sale. The deal came as an alternative to altering the current government standards that require cars to average 27.5 miles a gallon and SUVs and pickups to average 20.7 miles a gallon. Efforts to increase the standards have been vehemently opposed by the auto industry, which has succeeded in keeping those limits in place for more than a decade.

The other key battle in the energy debate will come over ANWR drilling. Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., have both threatened to filibuster any effort to add ANWR drilling to the Daschle bill. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has threatened to hold up any bill without an ANWR provision. But environmentalists are convinced Republicans don't have the votes to open the refuge for drilling. The push for drilling in the reserve, they say, is a political ploy meant to bolster the candidacy of Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is running for governor this year.

"The question is, will someone like Ted Stevens, who is not a grenade thrower, go to the mat for what amounts to being a feather in Frank Murkowski's gubernatorial cap?" Stoermer said. "After they spent weeks talking about Tom Daschle the obstructionist, how willing are they going to be to hold up a national energy policy in the middle of a war, over Arctic drilling?"

Of course, both the administration and its critics are trying to use the Sept. 11 attacks as a justification for their policy. In a Nov. 8 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled "Drill ANWR now," energy secretary Spenser Abraham said opening up the Arctic preserve was essential to the country's energy security.

"In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it is time we took steps to bolster energy security," Abraham wrote. "The bottom line is that the only people 'exploiting' Sept. 11 are those who would ask us to ignore our duty. The evidence of serious threats to our energy security could not be more obvious ... We shouldn't wait for yet another reminder of the need to boost energy security. We should act now."

But Kerry says the attacks on the United States and the subsequent cooling of relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran should be reason enough to support the proposals he is offering.

"The fact that American dollars go so significantly to these Middle Eastern countries, when they have been the hotbeds of terrorist incubations, should make a lot of Americans angry," he said. "It should spur us on to think about our responsibility to our young men and women in uniform and not put them at risk because we're unwilling to make better choices about energy. "

Kerry's speech outlined a series of proposed tax incentives to conserve energy and create new energy technology, but also called on Americans to wean themselves from oil dependency over the next generation, a move he says is essential to American economic independence. "You can exploit other places for oil, but ultimately oil is not the solution," Kerry said in his energy speech last month. "We're going to be dependent on it for a long time, but if you just keep relying on it, and keep it as the centerpiece of your energy policy, you're making an enormous mistake. It puts our economy in the hands of other people, and we should want to move away from that.

"All of the differences that existed between us on Sept. 10 weren't wiped away by the war," Kerry added in the interview. "The fact is that we're supportive of every effort on the war, we're supportive of fighting and destroying terrorism, but we also have to do things that make us strong here at home."

In an outline of Senate Republicans' energy priorities for the upcoming year, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said last week that some of the things proposed by Daschle, Bingaman and Kerry should be incorporated into the energy plan. "But we also have to focus on production," he said. "For the next 25 years, you and I are still going to be going to the gas pump to fuel our cars. And we would like reasonably priced energy where we are not dependent on some foreign consortium or single foreign nation as a primary supplier of our national energy security."

While Senate Democrats and the White House stake out their turf for the energy fight, environmental groups are hoping to cash in on the Enron debacle to help turn public opinion against the administration's energy plan. "It looks like we have an energy policy that was designed by the same people who brought us the Enron debacle," says National Resources Defense Council spokesman Alan Metrick. "Nothing good for the country, everything good for them, and leaves us dangerously dependent on oil."

Environmental groups have also renewed their criticism of the administration's Green credentials. Friday, the League of Conservation Voters released its presidential scorecard rating Bush's first year in office. Though Bush has never been known for his stellar grades, he received extremely low marks from the environmental group, which gave his administration a D-minus overall in its report on the Bush's first year in office.

"This report on the first year of the Bush administration describes, in convincing detail, the most damaging period for environmental policy in a generation," writes league President Deb Callahan, citing everything from Bush's appointments to his backing away from the Kyoto Accord as reason for the near-failing grade. And the league's report card echoed Kerry's criticisms of the Bush energy plan, calling it "a prescription to increase our national addiction to polluting fossil fuels."

Later this month, the group will release its congressional scorecards, and that will be good political news for Kerry. "If you're talking about the scorecard being a measure of a senator's commitment to environmental protection over his career, Sen. Kerry scores exceptionally well," Stoermer said. "He has the second-highest lifetime LCV score of any veteran senator. Only Russ Feingold is higher, and that may change when this new report is released."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Energy Enron John F. Kerry