Enviros to Bush's Energy Dept.: Nice try -- now show us the good stuff

The Natural Resources Defense Council says mountain of court-ordered docs has crucial omissions.

By Anthony York

Published March 29, 2002 11:39PM (EST)

The Natural Resources Defense Council was back in court Thursday in its ongoing fight to wrest information from the Department of Energy about the Bush administration's Energy Task Force. More than 11,000 pages of documents were released by the Department of Energy Monday, but NRDC says key pieces of those documents were missing, and should be released immediately.

NRDC spokesman Robert Perks said the documents released Monday were heavily redacted. "We got 11,000 pages with a whole lot of white space, but we can tell the industry's fingerprints are all over the task force policy plan."

Almost as soon as the documents were released, NRDC attorneys were back in front of U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler asking for more. "We know there's information missing in this batch. The question is whether they're going to turn up in the next batch, or whether the judge will order that they be released sooner," said Perks. Another 15,000 pages of documents are set to be released by the Energy Department April 10.

In the first batch, though, there were problems. E-mails were released, NRDC lawyers complained, but not the documents attached to them. "There was one e-mail where the message was from one [Department of Energy] official to another was, 'I think we found our coal chapter.' And if you follow the e-mail trail of addresses, it looks like a coal company sent some kind of information that they wanted to a DOE official. But we can't know without seeing that attachment. That attached document should have been included but wasn't."

Still, Perks says they contain "a few nuggets" that show just who had the ear of the administration when Vice President Dick Cheney took the lead in crafting its comprehensive energy plan. In one e-mail from American Petroleum Institute lobbyist Jim Ford, he refers to an attached document as "a suggested executive order to ensure that energy implications are considered and acted on in rulemakings and other executive actions."

On its Web site, the NRDC offers a side-by-side comparison of Bush's Executive Order 13211, issued on May 18, and the draft executive order sent by Ford. The wording is nearly identical.

And the documents strongly suggest that GOP donors played an instrumental role in shaping the Bush energy plan. According to numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics, the companies and lobbyists who met with the Energy Department during the time the policy was being drafted have given $29.1 million in political contributions since 1999; 75 percent of that money has gone to Republicans.

The White House maintains that while industry executives had some influence over the energy plan, environmental groups were also asked for their input.

"As we have said before, we received input and ideas from a variety of sources, whether it be an industry group or an environmental group, an individual citizen or a member of Congress," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack told the New York Times Thursday. "Of course, those ideas and suggestions were reviewed and those that were meritorious were discussed by the energy working group. If they were consistent with the goals of the group to provide more energy to the American people in a cleaner, safer way, then we incorporated those ideas into the final product."

Perks calls the assertion "simply a lie." He said a coalition of environmental groups, dubbed the Green Group, requested meetings with both Cheney and Energy Secretary Spenser Abraham, but was rebuffed. On April 4, the Green Group was granted a one-hour meeting with task force staff director Andrew Lundquist -- a meeting described by Perks as a "cover-your-butt meeting."

"It was just one hour-long meeting, and half that time was spent on introductions," Perks says. "That was essentially the only meeting. We had two or three meetings with lower level Energy Department officials, not for the task force specifically, but some of the issues we're concerned about. That was more normal, routine lobbying. We had tried to have input in the task force, but we were shut out of the process."

The Department of Energy claimed that of the 19 major recommendations made in the administration's May 2001 energy report, nine ideas were supported by environmental groups. But Perks described that claim as "totally bogus," and accused the department of wild spinning in the face of an environmentally disastrous energy proposal. "Take [automobile fuel economy] standards -- they said we both agree. We didn't agree. We support an increase in the standards, and have specified amounts of what kind of gas mileage cars and trucks should be getting. They said we should consider looking at whether or not the current standards need to be increased. We don't consider that agreement." Perks pointed to NRDC press releases that compare the group's energy proposals with the administration's.

When asked if anything supported by his group found its way into the Bush energy plan, Perks said, "I don't recall anything. I can't think of anything that the task force recommended that we approved of, or vice-versa."

The NRDC suit is the first of several lawsuits seeking more information about how the administration's energy plan was created. Other suits brought by Judicial Watch and Congress' General Accounting Office are pending. Those suits are more wide-ranging than NRDC's, which only sought information from the Department of Energy. The Judicial Watch and GAO suits seek information directly from Cheney and his task force.

Perks said that after the favorable ruling in seeking documents from the Department of Energy, the NRDC will also request documents from other government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce Department and the Department of the Interior, which may shed further light on how the energy policy was conceived and implemented.

The topic could haunt the administration for a while. Former Vice President Al Gore got into the act this week, criticizing Bush's energy secrecy during a speech at Tennessee Technological University earlier this week. "It is a disservice to the American people to treat us like children and say we're not allowed to know who came in to write the policies that were going to affect all our lives," Gore said.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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