Bush Energy Choice Rocks as California Blackouts Roll

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2001 (ENS) - President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for Energy Secretary sailed smoothly through his Senate confirmation hearing today, despite the fact that he once advocated abolishing the very department that he is now poised to lead.

Bush's nominee, former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham, faced almost no opposition of any kind from his former Senate colleagues on a day when a series of rolling blackouts swept across the energy starved state of California for the second day.

Abraham

Energy Secretary designate Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Abraham, a long time Republican Party activist who two months ago lost his bid to be reelected as a U.S. Senator from Michigan, told the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee that "a number of new developments have occurred" since he co-sponsored a measure in 1999 that would have done away with the Energy Department (DOE).

"I assure the Committee that I no longer support [that] legislation and its various components, such as privatization of the federal power marketing administrations," said Abraham, who is expected to easily win Senate confirmation to become the nation's Energy Secretary.

Not one Senator on either side of the dais asked Abraham to explain how or when he came to change his views regarding S. 896, which if enacted would have brought about the "complete abolition of the Department of Energy." The bill, which was not acted upon after being introduced in April of 1999, would have transferred many DOE operations to other federal departments and agencies.

Bingaman

New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, was the only Senator who even made reference to Abraham's previous efforts to shut down the department that he will now almost certainly lead. Bingaman, in his opening statement, said that Abraham has "seen the light," and has "come to understand how much the Department of Energy does for our energy security, our national security, our economy, and our scientific and technological prowess."

Bingaman said that he would not ask Abraham about his about-face on the Energy Department again because the Bush administration nominee had "already addressed it."

In his own opening remarks to the committee, Abraham laid out a series of broad but vaguely defined policy goals that he would work to enact as the nation's Energy Secretary.

Abraham began with the topic of national security, which stems from the DOE's responsibilities for certifying that the nation's nuclear arsenal is safe, secure and reliable. Abraham testified that "nothing I do will be higher on my priority list than the management of our nuclear stockpile.

The Bush cabinet nominee also addressed the issue of security at the DOE's national laboratories, a subject that sparked fervent debate on Capitol Hill after some top secret nuclear weapons computer codes went missing from the department's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Los Alamos

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (Photo courtesy DOE)
Abraham said that "this too, will be a very high priority of mine." He pledged to bolster security at the laboratories, but not in a way that would compromise the civil rights or dignity of the "highly skilled and patriotic employees" who work there.

On a related topic, Abraham spoke briefly of his plans to clean up the DOE's Cold War era nuclear weapons facilities, such as the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado and the Hanford reservation in Washington state. Abraham called the task the "world's largest cleanup program," adding that he was frustrated with the "lack of progress" in that area.

"These problems were not created overnight and certainly we are not going to dispense with them quickly or easily," Abraham said. "But we can do a better job of accelerating cleanup and closure of those sites that are surplus to DOE's needs."

In the area of science and technology, Abraham said that he would "continue to move forward" with innovative programs designed to improve the nation's "economic competitiveness." He cited the burgeoning interest in fuel cell vehicles as an example of how technological innovations can improve upon existing industries, and he said he would work as secretary to forge strong partnerships with industry and academia.

powerlines

Millions of miles of powerlines across the United States keep the lights turned on. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
But it was in the area of national energy policy that Abraham generated the most questions and comments from his Senate inquisitors. Abraham broached that subject by saying that he was "very concerned with the recent developments in California," a reference to the rolling blackouts that were imposed in that state on Wednesday. The blackouts, which have affected more than half a million people, are the outcome of a multi-faceted energy dilemma that has pushed the state's two largest utility companies to the brink of bankruptcy.

Abraham said that the California blackouts - as well as the skyrocketing cost of heating oil in Northeast - underscored for him the importance of formulating a comprehensive national energy policy.

"President-elect Bush and I are deeply committed to developing an energy policy that includes increasing domestic production of energy in an environmentally responsible manner," said Abraham. The would-be Energy Secretary said that the policy would entail "increasing our use of renewable energy, decreasing our reliance on imported foreign oil, and developing new technologies that conserve fossil fuels and reduce energy related pollution."

Abraham had no trouble convincing the Republicans on the panel that the nation should significantly increase its production of oil and natural gas. In a puerile sounding remark that nevertheless summarized the gist of the Republican position on the matter, Oregon Senator Gordon Smith said, "Just because we love our birds and fish and trees doesn't mean that we should sit in the dark and freeze."

"That's your challenge, Spence - we want the lights on," Smith told Abraham. "You've got to produce."

Smith's point was echoed by Idaho Republican Larry Craig, who warned Abraham that "We do not conserve our way out of this [energy crisis] - we produce our way out."

Murkowski

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
That strategy was articulated in detail by Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican who will reassume control of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee when Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is sworn into office on Saturday. Since January 3, the Democrats have chaired all committees in the evenly divided Senate, because of the presence of outgoing Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

Murkowski warned Abraham that an "energy crisis is upon us with full force." The Alaska Republican noted that natural gas prices are four times higher than they were last year, resulting in tremendous hardships for tens of millions of Americans.

Crude oil prices are again heading upward, noted Murkowski, who said that the nation's dependence on foreign oil imports is "threatening our national security."

"Supply is not keeping pace with demand," remarked Murkowski, who told Abraham that he "better have some answers" for ameliorating the crisis after the Bush administration assumes power on Saturday.

Murkowski called on Abraham to work with other federal agencies - such as the Interior Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - in solving the problem. Murkowski has complained that under the Clinton administration, the Interior Department has been overzealous in prohibiting oil and gas exploration on federal lands.

That point was echoed by another Republican on the panel, New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. Domenici said that the Clinton administration has "locked up" the nation's public lands so that they cannot be tapped to solve the energy crisis, and he asked for Abraham's commitment to find ways around those barriers.

Campbell

Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a native American, went further, asking Abraham to explore opening up Indian reservations to oil and gas development. Campbell, who noted that it costs him a fortune to drive a truck that gets less than six miles to the gallon, said that such an initiative should be undertaken "for the good of the nation."

The extraction policies that were emphasized by the Republicans during Abraham's confirmation hearing were very troubling for Dr. Brent Blackwelder, president of the U.S. branch of the international environmental group Friends of the Earth. Blackwelder, who submitted written testimony to the committee, sat in the audience and at times sighed audibly as the Republicans continued their drumbeat for more and more domestic energy production.

"I would make the observation that the Senators yelling the loudest about an energy crisis and foreign oil dependency are precisely the ones who have done the most to block higher automobile fuel economy standards, new conservation technologies, and the development of renewables," Blackwelder told ENS during a break in the hearing.

"Some blame goes on the Clinton administration, of course, but the culpability, fundamentally, lies with them," he said.

Blackwelder

Dr. Brent Blackwelder (Photo courtesy Friends of the Earth)
Blackwelder said that in listening to Abraham's testimony, he heard "absolutely no evidence" that the Energy Secretary designee had "any comprehensive grasp or vision for energy policy."

Asked why he thought Abraham had been nominated in the first place, Blackwelder said, "I think it simply had to do with a political payoff."

Many environmentalists on Capitol Hill have made such an observation, noting Abraham's fundraising activities on behalf of the Republican Party.

Asked about the Energy Department's likely collaboration with the Interior Department in developing a national energy policy, Blackwelder said, "It appears right now that there will be an all-out assault on the public lands, and to open them up to oil and gas drilling, as well as other forms of commercial exploitation."

In addition to Abraham, other Bush cabinet nominees - Interior Secretary designate Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft - both spell trouble for environmentalists, Blackwelder said.

"The lineup across the board - from Ashcroft to Abraham to Norton - is one that is going to present the biggest rollback in environmental protection in two decades," Blackwelder said.

Dorgan

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Some Democrats on the Senate panel did ask Abraham about his views regarding conservation measures, as well as the use of renewable energy sources. Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, queried the Bush nominee about his support for wind power and biomass technologies.

"I will continue to support the [DOE's] commitments in that area," Abraham said. "We've really got to have a balanced approach."

Dorgan also asked Abraham if he sided with the "scientific consensus" that global warming is a real problem caused by human activities.

Abraham would not commit to an answer, but said that he would work hard to address the issue of greenhouse gas production.

Asked by Dorgan if his energy policy vision entailed improving fuel economy standards for automobiles, Abraham said that "miles per gallon is not the only factor" in the equation. Abraham called for the production of more "hybrid" vehicles that run on rechargeable fuel cells.

"The market is driving this faster than the government ever could," Abraham said.

The Senate is expected to report back on the outcome of Abraham's confirmation hearing within a week.