Fading talk of energy 'crisis' hurts Bush plan

The administration stresses conservation more, but has yet to alter substance of energy plan.

What a difference two months makes.

It's been eight weeks since President Bush unveiled a dramatic plan to reshape America's energy landscape.

But these days pump prices have fallen, California's electricity crisis looks less severe, much of the public has turned skeptical of Bush's plan, and his policy is headed for a conservation-minded makeover in Congress.

That means, for instance, that the Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to block Bush's proposal to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This week the administration, conceding to public pressure, repackaged its plan as more eco-friendly - though it didn't alter the substance. There are even hints Bush may try to boost federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs - over automakers' objections.

Despite initial White House efforts to leverage talk of a national energy crisis into significant policy shifts, such as drilling in Alaska, "There is no energy crisis in this country - other than an electricity shortage in California for the next 18 months," says Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley. "There's increasing understanding out there that it's a non sequitur to talk about the California energy crisis and drilling in ANWR."

Although the plan to open ANWR passed a committee in the House of Representatives this week, opposition from balky moderate Republicans - who disagree with Bush on environmental issues - could mean it won't pass the full House, which could vote on the entire energy package before its August recess. But even if the ANWR move does pass the House, most observers expect it to fail in the Senate.

Bush also signaled a setback to his plans for more oil and gas extraction when he compromised on opening the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling. Early this month, under pressure from environmentalists and Gov. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida, the administration opened 1.5 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, not the 5.9 million originally proposed.

Another sign of the fast-shifting energy debate is growing momentum to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, the fleet-wide mileage requirements for US automakers. Congress hasn't upped them significantly since 1984 - and hasn't even debated them in the past six years.

But this week, a House committee approved a plan to make SUVs cut gas use by 5 billion gallons over six years. That's the equivalent of two weeks of gas consumption by all motor vehicles.

Vice President Dick Cheney - who has been out selling the Bush plan with other Cabinet members this week - said Wednesday in a TV interview that the White House "may end up recommending an increase in CAFE standards." He says the administration will act after seeing details from a National Academy of Sciences report. A draft of the study recommends raising the standards - but doesn't say how much. The final version is expected before August.

At least three things have driven the change in the energy debate.

* A dramatic drop in gas prices. In the past month alone, the nationwide average for regular unleaded fell about 20 cents to $1.426 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. Prices peaked two months ago, just as the Bush plan was released.

* California has averted a crisis so far. In fact, at the moment, the state has an electricity surplus. Some observers credit federal energy regulators' move to curb power prices. Others say the market just self-adjusted. Either way, the waning crisis saps urgency from reform efforts.

* Weak public support for the Bush plan, which many saw as thin on conservation. A recent Gallup poll found 45 percent of Americans backing the Bush plan, compared with, for instance, 63 percent approving his education policies.

All this has led to dramatic reductions in expectations for the original proposal.

But if talk of an energy crisis has faded, the Bush team remains firm that the US must alter its energy landscape to avoid future shortfalls.

And even as it emphasizes conservation, it has yet to change the plan. "We remain a nation that has energy problems," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said this week.

The Bush plan is far from kaput. Of the 105 recommendations in the original plan, 89 can be implemented by presidential fiat through federal agencies or executive orders. Only 20 need to pass Congress.

"When people say the administration has failed, it's because they're looking at ANWR and [the Florida drilling decision]," says Amy Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University in Houston. But in other areas, she says, the administration is doing a lot.

It has been pushing hard to get energy deals going with Mexico and Canada, for instance. It's these kind of lower-profile measures, say observers, that ultimately could make a bigger difference for US energy than, for instance, ANWR, which may or may not hold billions of barrels of oil.

Another action being considered - which would boost coal and oil - is for the Environmental Protection Agency to reinterpret rules about so-called New Source Review. These rules require that new upgrades to some refineries and power plants meet tougher anti-pollution standards. Easing these laws could allow expansion of coal-fired plants and oil refineries.

For some groups, it's these regulatory changes - not legislative ones - that make all the difference. "In truth, many of the things that we would [hope for] have more to do with the passage of regulations," says Edward Murphy of the American Petroleum Institute here.

Indeed, while environmentalists think they've got Bush beat on ANWR, because of what they see as his anti-green approach to energy, they're still watching him closely.

"They're giving lip service to conservation," says Nancy Kete of the World Resources Institute. "They're looking better, but it's still going to be hard to trust them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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