- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

Environmentalists had easy access to top Bush officials, as the administration laid plans from the beginning to address environmental concerns in its energy plan, internal administration documents show.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton wined and dined more than a dozen leading environmentalists at the Metropolitan Club on Feb. 20, 2001, as the administration sought to build bridges after the strenuous campaign the green groups had waged to defeat her nomination, taking out full-page attack ads in newspapers.
Four days earlier, the White House's energy task force had completed the first draft of an environmental chapter to be included in its energy plan, emphasizing how government has a dual role of facilitating energy development while protecting the environment, according to documents obtained by Judicial Watch, a government-watchdog group.
The early attention to the environment and the courting of environmentalists by top Bush officials is significant. Environmental organizations have contended recently that the administration left them out or, at best, considered the environment only as an afterthought in drafting its energy plan.
Press reports to the contrary notwithstanding, the Judicial Watch documents show that Mrs. Norton and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman met every few weeks with environmentalists in "green group" sessions designed to air their concerns.
"We tried to forge relationships with environmental groups to reduce the conflict," said Mark Pfeifle, spokesman for Mrs. Norton, who said the secretary's role as a principal member of the energy task force was "to find ways to increase environmentally sensitive energy production on public lands, onshore and offshore."
Mr. Pfeifle said that nearly one-third of the nation's energy production including the production of renewable energies, such as solar and wind power is on federal lands and that environmentalists showed "intense" interest at the sessions.
Environmentalists made ample use of their access to Mrs. Whitman and the task force's environmental coordinator, Lorie Schmidt, to voice their disagreement with energy-industry groups lobbying for looser environmental regulation, the documents show.
No group weighed in with the EPA more than the Natural Resources Defense Council, the lead environmental group suing for release of documents showing who influenced executive deliberations about the energy plan.
The NRDC pressured the administration to maintain the tough enforcement posture aimed at forcing utilities with aging coal-fired power plants to switch to natural gas, which the EPA had adopted in the last two years of the Clinton administration. Those utilities supply about half the nation's electricity.
Natural gas is many times more expensive than coal, and building plants creates large costs that must be passed on to utility customers. But environmentalists prefer natural gas because it emits fewer pollutants and less carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas than coal does.
At the time President Bush took office, spot shortages of electricity in California and soaring demand for natural gas had driven power and gas prices, including home-heating bills, to record highs. The energy crisis also had forced the shutdown of aluminum and glass factories and fertilizer and chemical plants and created other hardships for businesses and consumers.
The torrent of consumer and worker complaints to the White House, seen in the documents, prompted the administration to pledge early on to diversify energy sources and not rely too heavily on natural gas.
But the NRDC fought hard to maintain the Clinton strategy. John D. Walke, a former EPA staffer who left the agency to become the director of NRDC's clean-air project, sent Miss Schmidt an e-mail on May 2 citing news reports of industry attempts to halt the EPA's tough enforcement campaign and presented detailed arguments against it.
On May 8, he sent another e-mail to Miss Schmidt, transmitting the NRDC's letter to President Bush urging him not to change the enforcement policy. NRDC staffer Nancy Stoner also transmitted the group's press release to EPA staff.
Meanwhile, petroleum refiners were blaming the tough enforcement posture aimed at aging refineries, as well as power plants in part for creating the shortages of gasoline that drove prices to more than $2 a gallon in Chicago in the summer of 2000.
The refiners said in memos to the Energy Department that they had been unable to expand their capacity to make gasoline since the EPA launched lawsuits against most of them in 1998.
Citing those concerns, Sens. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, wrote Vice President Richard B. Cheney on March 23, urging him to temporarily halt and review the enforcement campaign. Their recommendation was in the energy plan.
The documents show that another environmentalist had inside access to the EPA and lobbied fervently against the energy plan on the grounds that it would increase carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning and cause global warming.
Jeremy Symons, a former EPA staffer on the energy task force, left to join the National Wildlife Federation in the spring of 2001. He used his inside knowledge to write a pamphlet against the energy plan and transmitted it to EPA staffers days before the plan was released May 17.
Mr. Symons appeared to have a warm relationship with Miss Schmidt, perhaps from working with her on the task force. In one e-mail dated May 10, he transmitted a news story about Republican centrists in Congress venting their frustration to Mr. Cheney over the administration's environmental decisions.
Miss Schmidt's reply thanked Mr. Symons and added: "Glad to know there are some R's looking out for us."


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