Transcript

Post Publishes Energy Task Force Visitors

Steven Mufson
Washington Post Energy Reporter
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 3:00 PM

Washington Post Energy Reporter Steven Mufson was online Wednesday, July 18, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his story about who Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force consulted in crafting energy legislation during the first Bush term.

Papers Detail Industry's Role in Cheney's Energy Report (Post, July 18)

The transcript follows.

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Steven Mufson: Good afternoon. I cover energy for The Washington Post. My colleague Mike Abramowitz, who covers the White House, and I wrote an article in today's paper about the long-secret list of people who paid visits to the staff of the energy task force that Vice President Cheney ran in the early days of the Bush administration. The administration has fought hard to keep this list and other documents secret. I'm ready to answer your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Lets see ... the people who actually make and produce our energy, not a bunch of millionaire green hypocrites, were on an energy task force. Someone, please tell me where the news is?

Steven Mufson: I would say that the news here is that we have obtained a list of people who had access to present their views on energy policy at a key time, and the administration had tried to keep that list secret. Frankly it's not clear why it needed to be secret, though it would seem to fit a pattern that the administration has pursued about a variety of deliberations. But we were just trying to shed a little bit more light on this controversial task force.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did your source give you the list now?

Steven Mufson: I'd rather not speculate about that. People have all sorts of reasons for helping the press, some noble and some less so. In this case, someone felt it was time to make this known more widely; we called quite a few people on the list to make sure it was real and to get other views, and then we wrote our article.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the release of this list will affect the outcomes of the current energy and global warming bills in the House of Representatives? Could it sway any congressmen who are undecided on whether to support provisions like increased mileage standards for automakers or renewable portfolio standards for utilities, or is nobody surprised by who is on the list?

Steven Mufson: Good question. I'm not sure. I think there are a lot of forces in play on current energy and global warming bills in the House. Some of them are the same corporate voices that played a role in the task force process. Some of them are welling up from voters and consumers.

There's nothing wrong, incidentally, about interested companies having a voice in the process. What it seems that we as a nation want to avoid is that those companies press an agenda that is really contrary to the nation's interests or consumers' interests. That's where Congress is supposed to exercise some judgment, and it's where we at newspapers try to shed some light so that lawmakers and readers know where companies are coming from.

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washingtonpost.com: What was the purpose of bringing in environmental representatives for the token meeting? Given the lack of access and sway critics have had with this administration, it seems out of character to even provide that much time.

Steven Mufson: I can't really look into the minds of the people on the task force, but this was early in the Bush administration and perhaps people wanted to be building bridges and support that the administration would need in Congress to get legislation passed. Also, there were members of the task force from the EPA. Finally, while environmental groups could submit positions in writing to the task force, the face time doesn't appear to have been very long.

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Davis, Calif.: What is the current administration doing to further alternative fuels?

Steven Mufson: The current administration has supported tax incentives for renewable fuels, such as solar and wind. It also has supported tax incentives for nuclear power, hoping that a plant might be started for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. And it has set a mandate, requiring oil refiners to use a minimum amount of ethanol by certain dates, and that has ignited a huge expansion of the ethanol industry.

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Battle Creek, Mich.: Is Cheney's withholding of government documents, in this case and many others, contempt of Congress and/or an impeachable offense?

Steven Mufson: The courts have ruled that the administration was within its rights to withhold this document and other White House documents about the task force, but ordered the administration to release documents from the agencies. So no, it does not appear to be impeachable or contempt. But there are many areas where Congress has oversight responsibilities and it needs some information to exercise that role. Now that Democrats control Congress, we're seeing more of a tug-of-war on that sort of thing, and Congress and the administration are wrestling about where the lines are. For most of the Bush administration, Congress did not vigorously pursue its oversight role.

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Washington, D.C.: Is this list of participants essentially what Comptroller General David Walker had tried to sue the administration to obtain in 2003?

Steven Mufson: I believe it was one of the things. If I remember correctly, he also was seeking other memos and documents from the task force that remain secret.

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Foster City, Calif.: As I understand it, most of the energy/oil sold in California comes from our country. Why is it that every single time anything about oil abroad goes way up -- more so than other states. It seems like nothing more than a cheap gimmick to cheat Californians of even more of our money.

Steven Mufson: The oil market generally moves in the same direction worldwide. There are some regional differences based on pipelines, whether refineries only can handle certain qualities of oil, etc. California's market has some peculiarities, but it still is linked to the world market.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Note to Washington, who apparently defends "the people who actually make and produce our energy" and their right to be the sole voice on energy policy: These people exploit the environment in a way that has a negative impact of all the citizens of this country and the world in order to make money. Yes, they produce energy that we currently need, but they profit from the status quo, whereas we, the people, would benefit from changing the status quo to find alternative fuels, etc. In fact it is of concern that these companies, in forming "energy" policy, were also instrumental in fomenting war policy. Is there any hope that we'll find out what was discussed at these meetings?

Steven Mufson: We tried to give some idea of the things discussed at these task force meetings by interviewing some of the participants. It's also interesting to look at this with the benefit of hindsight about what policies the administration actually pursued, and about the different way many people now think about issues such as climate change

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Washington, D.C.: Why did the Bush administration push so hard to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when the oil companies themselves currently active on Alaska's North Slope see it as a region of declining yield, worth little further investment?

Steven Mufson: I believe that if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were open to drilling, oil companies believe they could drill there profitably. I believe there are different oil reservoirs there than in the already-developed areas on the North Slope, where production is indeed declining.

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Baltimore: In light of the revelations regarding the manipulation of the California Energy Market -- i.e. forced blackouts, lying about the price and availability of energy -- has anyone ever proposed that the results of Cheney's commission are severely flawed and that another commission should be seated so that more accurate information could be processed? Of course we know that this administration wouldn't change a thing, but this time Congress could at least threaten to control some purse strings regarding the commission and its final report.

Steven Mufson: While I was on a different beat at that time, I believe Congress did hold hearings on the California electricity crisis, and that was very much on the mind of the energy task force. It was one reason the task force report endorsed right-of-way for electric transmission lines. Another form of "commission" has looked into that crisis: the courts. Several people involved in the crisis ended up in court and were convicted of various offenses.

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Woodland, Calif.: How can America make the transition to alternative fuels when it's so dependent on oil?

Steven Mufson: Gradually. The energy business is a huge and capital-intensive business. Changing it will take some time. The United States currently imports more than 10 million barrels a day of crude oil, and some additional refined products

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New York: This seems to me a pretty benign story. It just confirmed what everyone believed about who participated in the Cheney energy meetings. A few years ago, the BBC had a far more provocative story about another participant in the Cheney energy meetings: Falah Aljibury. It confirmed that the Bush administration made plans for war and for Iraq's oil before the 9/11 attacks. Here's the link. It seems negligent for a newspaper to report on the Iraq war without reporting on what role oil played before the war, and now. Can you explain this? Thanks.

Steven Mufson: I have read this piece before. Mr. Aljibury does not say that he participated in the energy task force meetings. He makes allegations about other meetings, and there isn't much separate support for his account. Because I was covering something else at the time, I frankly don't know whether someone here at The Post pursued this story at that time.

This topic is part of a wider set of theories and assertions about the role that oil may have played in U.S. thinking about Iraq before the war. Again, this is something my colleagues have written about.

I think that it is simplistic to reduce the decision to go to war to one of oil alone. The Bush administration had many reasons for going to war in Iraq. But there's no question that oil has long been a key factor in U.S. foreign policy and there is no question that Iraq has tremendous oil reserves. We will continue to track this element of the story as best we can.

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Steven Mufson: I'm afraid I need to get back to another story now. But thanks for reading The Post, and thanks very much for your questions. I'm sorry I couldn't get to all of them.

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