Spencer Abraham joined the exodus from President Bush's Cabinet yesterday, submitting his resignation as energy secretary after four years of running a department that faced a series of high-profile challenges.
Abraham's watch coincided with the California energy crisis of 2001, the collapse of Enron and the energy-trading market, last year's investigation of a major blackout in the Midwest and Northeast, record oil and gasoline prices, and stepped-up efforts to secure Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the repository for the nation's nuclear waste.
Although seen as an unlikely choice for energy secretary, Spencer Abraham got mostly good reviews.
He worked to destroy nuclear stockpiles in Russia and to reorganize his department's nonproliferation offices, winning praise from the International Atomic Energy Agency for his efforts. Abraham also was an enthusiastic advocate for advancing research into hydrogen power.
The administration's signature effort during his tenure was a change in direction in national energy policy. But the package of legislation pushed by Bush and Vice President Cheney, who both had ties to the energy industry in their days as businessmen, remains stalled in conference committee.
Abraham, 52, said in his letter to the president on Sunday that he is proud of his accomplishments but needs to spend more time with his wife and three young daughters.
The former Republican senator from Michigan was an unlikely choice for secretary of energy. He had no experience in the energy field and once even advocated abolishing the department. The easygoing Abraham wound up winning generally good reviews, although critics charged that he went along with an administration that was too friendly to industry.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Abraham served as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and as deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle before being elected to the Senate in 1994. His primary area of expertise was his home state's auto industry.
"Going into the job without a strong energy background, I thought, was a huge asset for him, that he wasn't automatically aligned with oil or coal or gas. He really could approach all of the different energy sectors with an evenhanded approach," said former Michigan governor John M. Engler, who heads the National Association of Manufacturers and is a friend of Abraham's.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised Abraham for his bipartisan spirit.
"He was always willing to hear our perspective, which I appreciate," Bingaman said. "I think he's had a very difficult job" because Cheney has clearly been the administration's lead voice on energy policy, the senator added.
Advocates for the environment and for alternative energy say Abraham did not provide leadership during a time of increasing concern about global warming and dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Although the Bush administration deserves credit for making energy policy a national priority, it produced a strategy that relies too heavily on fossil fuels, said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park.
Abraham's successor will have to pick up the matter and push Congress to act, experts said, as well as deal with the unresolved matter of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Abraham said he will stay in office until a successor is confirmed. If that stretches beyond Inauguration Day, Jan. 20 -- which is likely -- he will qualify as the longest-serving energy secretary.
After leaving office, Abraham plans to stay in the Washington area and work in private business, Engler said.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in New York contributed to this report.