President Reagan yesterday appointed Interior Undersecretary Donald P. Hodel as the new secretary of energy, drawing praise from several energy industry spokesmen and rage from environmentalists, who vowed to fight his nomination.
Both sides said Hodel's appointment signals a continued push for nuclear power development, championed by outgoing Secretary James B. Edwards. They also predicted that Hodel, a former utility industry consultant and manager, will prove more effective than Edwards, a dental surgeon who was criticized as inexperienced.
The Hodel appointment leaves hanging the question of how the administration plans to dismantle the department, a move rejected by Congress and expected to meet even more resistance in the more heavily Democratic 98th Congress.
Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House energy, conservation and power subcommittee, said in response to the Hodel announcement that Edwards had "all but destroyed" U.S. energy policy, gutting conservation programs and doing little to prepare for another energy crisis.
Hodel, who assumes his new job Monday, will face Senate confirmation hearings after Congress reconvenes for its lame-duck session Nov. 29. Environmentalists vowed to turn the session into a "trial" of the Reagan administration's energy and resource policies.
Since the start of the Reagan administration, Hodel has served as the top assistant to Interior Secretary James G. Watt, keeping a low profile while implementing the policies and philosophy of his far more outspoken and combative boss.
Under the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, Hodel was chief of the Bonneville Power Administration, making him the No. 1 federal energy official in the Northwest during a tumultuous era in the region's power development.
In that role, Hodel announced in 1976 that Bonneville, the U.S. agency that markets electricity in the Northwest, did not have enough power to supply the region's utilities through the 1980s.
Some public utility companies now blame that assessment for their decision to embark on a financially disastrous nuclear power expansion project nicknamed "Whoops"--a takeoff on its real name, the Washington Public Power Supply Service (WPPSS).
Two of five plants in the program have been canceled and another has been deferred because of six-fold cost overruns and a sharp drop in the demand for power in the region.
The idled projects leave a debt of $2.25 billion -- more than $7 billion including interest, according to attorneys familiar with the WPPSS bonding system -- which threatens to send utility rates soaring in the region.
Among the proposals awaiting Hodel at the Energy Department is a request from a major WPPSS creditor for federal subsidies to help pay off the debt. Also on the agenda is a push for "streamlining" of nuclear reactor regulations, a nuclear waste disposal policy, and an industry drive for deregulation of natural gas.
While environmentalists yesterday pilloried Hodel as "the man who gave us 'Whoops,' " his defenders held that many officials in the region shared Hodel's expansionist nuclear power visions at the time, when the Northwest was booming. They called the 47-year-old lawyer, who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of Oregon, a skilled manager.
Spokesmen for the Edison Electric Institute, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers said they welcome his appointment and praised his experience.
By contrast, Sierra Club president Denny Shaffer responded, "America does not need a second Watt in the Cabinet," and called on Reagan to reconsider the appointment.
Environmental groups did battle with Hodel throughout his Bonneville tenure. They charged that he minimized the role of conservation in stretching existing energy supplies, and at one point downplayed a study by a Bonneville contractor, which suggested conservation projects could sharply slow the need for new power plants.
In response, Hodel delivered speeches that included blistering attacks on "environmental extremists" similar to those made famous by Watt. "It is no longer just a conservation movement," he said of environmentalism in a 1975 speech to the City Club of Portland, Ore., "but a crusade to stop all development in this country."