Bush Task Force on Energy Worked in Mysterious Ways
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Published: May 16, 2001
New York Times
WASHINGTON, May 15— The tiny staff of the Bush administration's Energy Development Task Force is led by two former aides to Senator Frank H. Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
The aides jokingly call themselves the Alaska jihad.
But Mr. Murkowksi, when asked recently about the role his former aides, Andrew Lundquist and Karen Knutson, have played in the task force's much-anticipated report, which will be released on Thursday, replied, ''They don't tell me anything.''
On the eve of the release of the 170-page report, the broad outlines are fairly well known. The plan encourages the production of oil, gas, coal and nuclear power and calls for some tax credits for renewable energy resources and a push for conservation. But since the task force's work began in February, most of Washington has remained in the dark about how it operated, which arguments it embraced and how it reached decisions on some of the nation's thorniest energy issues.
Individuals from the task force have met with more than 400 people from more than 150 groups over the last three months. Mr. Lundquist said today that he could not provide a list of all the groups he had spoken with. ''I can't really tell you who, because there are hundreds I've met with,'' he said.
Administration officials also said that they wanted to keep private the list of those they met with to encourage the free flow of ideas. Still, they said that they had talked with a broad range of interested parties.
In a recent interview, Vice President #$%$ Cheney said: ''The staff of our energy task force has spent time with folks from various pieces, parts, of the industry. We've also spent time with the environmentalists. I spent a lot of time with members of Congress, listening to them, both parties, on energy. So the idea that somehow only the energy industry has access just simply isn't true.''
But last month, two Democrats on Capitol Hill challenged the secrecy of the process surrounding the task force, which has met eight times in the last 90 days. David S. Addington, counsel to the vice president, responded that it did not have to provide information about the process because all of the staff members are federal employees. In addition, environmental groups have requested documentation about task force meetings under the Freedom of Information Act, but so far those have been denied.
Democrats and environmentalists say the process was tilted heavily toward the coal, gas and oil industries and point out that the energy industry is one of the biggest contributors to political campaigns, giving $64 million last year, three-fourths of it to Republicans.
Among those who said they felt shut out was the Consumer Federation of America, the nation's largest consumer-advocacy group. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democrat and former senator from Ohio who is now chairman of the group, said, ''The energy crisis is first and foremost a price crisis affecting consumers.
''It's an incredible insult to the consumers of this country that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the consumer organizations were invited to the meetings or otherwise participated,'' he said.
Juleanna Glover Weiss, Mr. Cheney's spokeswoman, said no invitations were issued and groups had to request meetings. ''We didn't invite anybody to meet with us,'' she said.
The leaders of about two dozen environmental groups had asked to see Mr. Cheney, whose office turned down their requests. Instead, midlevel staff members from the groups met with Mr. Lundquist and Ms. Knutson.
Alys Campaigne, legislative director of the National Resources Defense Council, said that that meeting lasted about 40 minutes but that the size of the group inhibited substantive policy discussion.
''We asked who the deputies were on different issues so we could have more in-depth conversations, and they wouldn't tell us,'' she said. ''They said, 'Just send us paper, we'll take a look at it.' The meeting felt like window dressing for us, but they got to check off the box that they consulted with stake-holders.''
Mr. Lundquist said he viewed his meeting with the environmental groups as ''a good conversation.''
Some of the industry representatives who did get audiences with the vice president said the task force's deliberations seemed a mystery to them, too. John Grasser, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said: ''We've probably had as much input as anybody else in town.'' But, he added, ''All we know is what we read in the paper. This is a tight-lipped process. I have to take my hats off to them -- they've been able to keep a lid on it.''
Richard S. Shapiro, senior vice president of the Enron Corporation, a major Republican contributor and the nation's largest trader of wholesale electricity and natural gas, said top executives from his firm spent half an hour with Mr. Cheney, but he could not tell how much this may have influenced the final report.
''Energy issues are a very high priority, and we've had the opportunity to provide some input into the process,'' Mr. Shapiro said. ''But it's been difficult to get input in the task force. Other consumer groups have been weighing in with perspectives. It's not an open-hearing setting.''
Tom Kuhn, head of the Edison Electric Institute, the utility lobbying group, and a friend of the president's since they were classmates at Yale, saw the process as relatively open.
''The task force put out the word they were open to input,'' he said in an interview. He said that his group sent them reports and that some executives met briefly with Mr. Cheney.
Given all of their interaction with so many groups, Mr. Lundquist denied that the process had been secretive. ''I don't think that's fair,'' he said. ''There's been no attempt to make it a secret process. All it's been is an effort to work on and put out good policy.''