It is no secret that Americans need and want a new energy policy. Recent events — including the August blackouts that affected tens of millions of people in the Northeast and Midwest, and the California energy crisis of 2001 — have made that point abundantly clear.
So if Americans want a balanced, reliable energy system that benefits consumers, boosts our economy and protects the environment, why do Congress and the Bush administration insist on developing an energy policy as though it were a top-secret military strategy?
Over the last two years, from the White House energy task force to the energy bill in Congress, the American public has been excluded from all discussion over a new energy policy. That secrecy only makes us skeptical: Will a new policy benefit the American public, or energy companies with access to the White House and key members of Congress? Because we cannot tell, the American public has, again, been left in the dark.
While Common Cause recognizes the need for an energy policy, we strongly object to the secrecy surrounding the development of the Energy Policy Act of 2003. Some of the following examples illustrate how that secrecy keeps all of the American public, and even some members of Congress, from learning what is in this bill.
According to published reports, the chairmen of the conference committee, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, R-La., rewrote the bill in an informal conference that excluded Democrats and Republicans alike. Soon after the Senate passed its version of the energy policy bill on July 31, Domenici went so far as to tell The Associated Press: “This is a day to smile and smile big. The reason I'm smiling is because I'm going to be rewriting that bill.”
Fellow members were not happy. One of them, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y., said his staff was not involved in writing language dealing with the funding of clean-coal research — an area his committee oversees. “We're being told (by the chairmen) we have to accept on faith what they're going to produce, but I always say, “Trust but verify,”‘ Boehlert told the Washington Post.
In August, the General Accounting Office reported that Vice President Cheney's task force, officially known as the National Energy Policy Development Group, relied heavily on “petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists” for policy suggestions in a 2001 report it produced. The task force and assorted federal agencies refused to turn over work-related documents to the GAO.
In addition, agreements on the energy bill in Congress have been reached in private on several issues, such as energy research priorities and an Alaskan natural gas pipeline. Those deals have left critics, including environmental groups and members of Congress, complaining that utility, gas and oil lobbyists are writing key parts of the bill.
The Washington Post reported on two such provisions on Oct. 12. One would exempt a drilling technique used by oil and gas companies — including Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co. — from some controls of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, although the technique may pollute underground drinking water supplies. The other provision would limit the liability of companies that manufacture or refine the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), which has been blamed for polluting water supplies in several states. The provision benefits several oil companies, as well as Texas-based Lyondell Chemical Co., the nation's largest manufacturer of MTBE. (Since 1995, Halliburton and Lyondell have given $1.5 million in PAC contributions to candidates and soft-money donations to political parties, with nearly 88 percent going to Republicans.)
The secrecy with which this bill has been developed represents a contemptible display of disrespect of the American public by Congress and the Bush administration. We cannot tell whether this energy policy will adequately address our nation's needs or benefits a few energy companies while simultaneously eroding environmental protections.
Americans must not accept this blatant disregard for public input on a crucial measure that will affect virtually every citizen for years to come. It's long past time for Congress and the White House to be open about all aspects of the energy bill, including its scope and effect on consumers, industry and the environment. We deserve no less.
Chellie Pingree is president and CEO of Common Cause www.commoncause.org.
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