The Bush administration's long-running effort to formulate a comprehensive national energy policy has bogged down in internal debates over timing and political tactics and a split between White House aides and the Energy Department over key issues, according to administration officials.
The "final" set of energy policy options that the Energy Department submitted to President Bush at a Dec. 21 meeting of the White House Economic Policy Council turned out not to be final after senior White House aides objected to some energy conservation proposals, officials said.
The package was sent back for what one Energy Department source called "more homework." It is still possible that Bush will announce some energy policy decisions in his State of the Union Address Jan. 28, but at least one, and possibly several more Cabinet-level meetings will be required before final decisions are made, a White House official said.
At the same time, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Michael J. Boskin is reportedly urging Bush to postpone all energy decisions until the Persian Gulf crisis has been resolved.
Energy Secretary James D. Watkins and his aides have been working for 18 months to develop what he called an "action plan" to meet the nation's future energy needs. At White House insistence, the proposed plan will take the form of "options" for the president's consideration, rather than policy recommendations.
Whatever options Bush selects after he receives the final package from the Energy Department and the Economic Policy Council are to become the basis of administration policy on every energy issue from nuclear power to natural gas pipeline regulation. But Bush apparently is not going to submit a comprehensive energy legislation proposal to Congress as he did with the Clean Air Act, a White House official said.
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu thinks "we might have a better chance with the Democratic-controlled Congress if we place our initiatives strategically instead of all in one dollop," the official said.
The most critical policy dispute appears to concern proposals for government action to require energy conservation, such as a law mandating increases in automobile mileage efficiency.
Sununu and Boskin reportedly oppose any such proposals, believing them unwarranted interference in the free market, but Energy Department officials and key members of Congress argue that conservation measures are essential politically if the administration hopes to win assent for oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and for increased use of nuclear power.
In a Dec. 15 television interview, Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore said, "I fully believe the president will select a balanced program that will lean just as heavily on renewable forms of energy such as solar, will lean just as heavily on energy conservation measures, as it will any kind of new production measures," such as drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.
"If you want just ANWR alone," he said, "you're not going to build a consensus. There's no balance."
That has been the Energy Department's position all along, but department officials have been silent since the Dec. 21 meeting, prompting reports that conservation options have been scrapped at White House insistence.
Energy Department officials said they have been ordered into silence by the White House, but a White House official denied it. "They're very nervous because the work they have invested 18 months in is before the Economic Policy Council," the official said, but silence is good tactics at this point. "Your credibility around the table in the Roosevelt Room is hurt if you are seen to be trying to leverage your program through the media," he said.
The official silence about what is happening in this last phase of devising the National Energy Strategy has caused anxiety throughout the energy and environmental community.
Conservationists fear their interests are being pushed aside by powerful White House officials, such as Sununu, who are more interested in building nuclear power plants than in giving tax breaks to renewable energy sources. Lobbyists are worried that policies affecting their industries are being formulated without input from them.
Members of the board of prominent energy experts and executives that Watkins created to advise him on the process are complaining that they are now shut out. Some key members of Congress are concerned that important energy initiatives will fail because of the White House's perceived unwillingness to compromise on conservation issues.
"We need the president's leadership and help, just as on clean air," to enact comprehensive energy legislation, said Rep. Norman F. Lent (R-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "President Bush is to be commended for launching this process, but now is the time to follow through."
Lent and other Republicans on the committee moved out in front of the White House late last year by introducing their own sweeping package of energy legislation -- one deliberately constructed to balance environmental and conservation concerns with programs to enhance energy production. He said mandatory improvements in auto mileage efficiency should be included in an energy package but "they may be anathema to the White House."
"I was hopeful that a National Energy Strategy would develop that would be creative and offer new options that would in the long term create a competitive advantage for the United States in the global economy," said Sandy Kraemer, a Colorado lawyer who served on Watkins's advisory board. Choosing his words carefully, with long pauses between phrases, Kraemer said, "I wanted an opportunity to contribute and that opportunity did not materialize, for reasons I don't know."
"One would think the president's advisers would be encouraging him to seize international leadership by reversing the policies that have led the world into yet another energy crisis," said Sierra Club chairman J. Michael McCloskey when what was thought would be the "final" option papers were presented to Bush. "Instead, the National Energy Strategy options . . . are simply a lump of coal in the stockings of all those who care about the health of the planet that we are leaving to our children. It seems clear that the whole process has been designed to ensure safe profit markets for Exxon and General Motors, not a safe energy future for the American people."
White House and Energy Department officials denied that all proposals to require energy conservation have been excised from the package, but they refused to give any details.