Dubious Anniversary

May 14, 2004
10:37 AM
Monday marks the third anniversary of the release of President George W. Bush’s National Energy Policy Plan, more commonly known as the Cheney Energy Task Force report. Such an occasion calls for some reflection on what that report said, why it had so little impact on our energy problems, and whether there might be a better way forward to meet important national energy challenges than what the Administration has done, to date. Senator Bingaman has spoken on several occasions about the Cheney Task Force and its report. He has taken the position that President Bush was correct to identify national energy policy as a priority, when he campaigned four years ago in 2000. And among the many recommendations in the Cheney task force report are goals that Senator Bingaman agrees with. Regrettably, the President’s proposal was weakened by the method used to develop it, and the lack of follow-up once the report was issued. To this day, public interest groups are still fighting in court to find out whom the Cheney Task Force actually met with. There was no outreach to Congressional Democrats and, as far as anyone knows, no reaching out to many of the groups that have a vital interest in our country’s energy policy. That prevented policymakers from hearing the broad range of views that would have been offered, and it failed to generate the public trust and confidence that ought to be behind such a policy. It was an unnecessary and self-inflicted handicap to developing policy. In addition, the President’s plan lacked legislative specifics. Even where the plan recommended that legislation be sent to the Hill (i.e., the recommendation that "the President direct the Secretary of Energy to propose comprehensive electricity legislation..."), such legislation was never transmitted. The task of taking the very general goals of the President’s energy plan and fashioning it into energy bills fell entirely to Congress. Many of the recommendations in the President’s plan (some 76 out of a total of 105) were addressed by the Administration to itself for further internal action. Here, too, there have been some very significant gaps in follow-up. For example, the first recommendation of the President’s plan under "Increasing Domestic Energy Supplies" was for "the Secretaries of Energy and the Interior to promote enhanced oil and gas recovery from existing wells through new technology." Over the last three years, DOE has consistently proposed to slash its technology programs in this area, including an 84 percent cut for DOE’s petroleum exploration & production research in the President’s budget proposed to Congress for the upcoming fiscal year. With respect to gasoline supplies and prices, the President’s plan also called for EPA to study "ways to increase the flexibility of the fuels distribution infrastructure" by reining in so-called "boutique fuels." EPA has done little or nothing on this issue since October 2001. The plan also called for the President to get EPA and DOE to "take steps to ensure America has adequate refining capacity to meet the needs of consumers." As any visit to a filling station will demonstrate, this recommendation went unheeded by the very Administration that wrote it. So, while President Bush has periodically issued public statements on the need for a comprehensive national energy policy, his Administration started off on the wrong foot and has stumbled on many important issues since. The key question for Senator Bingaman is how to move forward from where we are today, and how to get something useful done in Congress and on the part of the Administration, which has a great deal of statutory authority given to it over three decades worth of energy legislation. With respect to energy legislation, Bingaman has consistently advocated taking elements of energy legislation that enjoy broad, bipartisan support, and moving them forward to the President’s desk. That process got a boost this week when, on Wednesday, the Senate approved a corporate tax bill which includes a comprehensive energy tax package. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Bingaman was influential in getting these bipartisan tax incentives out of the line of fire that has bogged down the bigger comprehensive energy bill. Another area where Bingaman hopes Congress can act expeditiously is to improve the reliability of our nation’s electric transmission system. We have known for a long time that this is a critical need that must be addressed. In the 106th Congress, Bingaman worked with then-Chairman Frank Murkowski to craft the first comprehensive electricity reliability bill. The Senate passed that bill unanimously. This language has since been streamlined and has passed the Senate on two more occasions. The House also has passed virtually identical language. Sen. Maria Cantwell has introduced this proposal as a stand-alone bill. So, right now, Congress has a non-controversial, bipartisan, bicameral bill on electricity reliability that both Houses can pass. Although the situation in Congress is complex in an election year, these developments illustrate that meaningful steps can be taken toward a new energy policy. Beyond what Congress can do, there are many untapped opportunities for action by the Administration. The way the President uses his existing legal powers can, in fact, have a much greater near-term effect on gasoline and natural gas prices than new Congressional legislation. This point was underlined by the Administration’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA) this past February when it reviewed the likely energy market impacts of the stalled energy conference report from last year. The EIA found that the effect of the comprehensive bill, so often touted on the Senate floor as a response to high energy prices, to be "negligible" with respect to production, consumption, imports, and those energy prices. In March, Sen. Bingaman wrote to President Bush with 13 constructive actions the Administration can take in the short- to medium-term to address high energy prices. One recommendation was to streamline the system of boutique fuels. Another, which adds substance to a topic noted in the Bush energy plan, deals with the need for more refining capacity. While we wait to hear from the President, we remain hopeful that the Administration will find a way to use the statutory authority it already has. And we remain hopeful that Congress will continue to move forward on those items that are most needed in energy policy and likely to pass both Houses.

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