- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

Spencer Abraham won a unanimous recommendation as energy secretary from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday, just hours after testifying before the panel.

With California in its second day of rolling blackouts yesterday, senators warned Mr. Abraham the Bush administration must develop a balanced energy policy and begin to address the California energy crisis immediately after it takes over.

"You better have some answers after the 20th," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican.

Western senators quizzed Mr. Abraham a former Michigan senator who lost his bid for re-election in November for a position on the California energy problem. But he declined to indicate just how the new Bush administration will respond when it comes to power tomorrow.

"But I do want to assure this committee … this administration is very concerned and we view it as a matter of urgent priority and will treat it as such," Mr. Abraham, 48, said.

Some Western senators sought assurances from Mr. Abraham that the new administration will help find a solution so California's neighbors don't have to continue supplying the state with energy.

"I think my state is being set up to be an energy farm for California," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican.

Mr. Murkowski urged Mr. Abraham not to bail California out of its crisis until it tries to resolve the problem on its own, either through its state legislature or through ongoing negotiations, which were brokered by the Clinton administration.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the federal government has a role resolving the crisis because the state's energy problem could affect the nation if it is left unresolved. California by itself has the world's sixth-largest economy.

"I believe there is a federal responsibility through FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission]," she said.

Mrs. Feinstein told Mr. Abraham that FERC is partly responsible for escalating costs to utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. because it has refused to cap wholesale electric rates.

She said she plans to introduce a bill giving Mr. Abraham authority to cap wholesale rates.

Under California's 1996 hybrid deregulation plan, the rates that utilities charge consumers are capped, but rates that utilities pay for energy from wholesale suppliers are not capped.

Senators said increasing domestic energy production could help end the California energy crisis and help solve potential energy shortages.

"California is just the tip of the iceberg," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican.

Mr. Abraham who, unlike President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney, has no experience in the energy industry said increasing domestic energy production will be included as part of a new national energy policy the Bush administration will present.

That policy will be aimed at reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil, he said.

Over the past decade, domestic oil consumption has increased by more than 14 percent while U.S. oil production has fallen more than 18 percent, Mr. Abraham said. That has increased the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and the country imports 57 percent of the oil it uses, according to the Energy Department. The figure is expected to rise to 62 percent by 2004.

The administration also will consider a deregulation policy to prevent other states from being hampered by the same problems that have plagued California, Mr. Abraham said.

"There's widespread agreement that what's taken place in California is a failure," he said.

Senators warned Mr. Abraham that he will inherit the job at a time when many critical issues from the California crisis to security and morale at federal labs to volatile gasoline prices have been dropped on the desk of the energy secretary.

Mr. Abraham's confirmation by the full Senate is expected next week.

The experience of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney in oil and gas issues is expected to help Mr. Abraham who once sought to eliminate the Energy Department through his learning curve.

Mr. Abraham proposed abolishing the Department of Energy in legislation he co-sponsored in 1996 and reintroduced in 1999. He said yesterday that the need for a balanced energy policy and changes in the management structure at the department persuaded him to change his mind.

Republicans criticized President Clinton when he selected Hazel O'Leary in 1992 to head the Energy Department. Before senators confirmed Mr. Abraham yesterday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, urged Democrats not to repeat the Republicans' strategy.

"It would be easy [to question Mr. Abraham's qualifications], but it would not be fair or constructive," he said.

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