- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

The Bush administration, which considers increasing domestic oil production as central to a national energy policy, is focusing on a plan to develop clean-burning hydrogen at home and encouraging Canada to develop untapped oil reserves.

The massive energy bill, which is expected to come up for a vote this week, will not include drilling for oil in a small portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, an option Mr. Bush had insisted be part of an energy program.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, in an exclusive interview Friday with reporters and editors of The Washington Times, said the administration has given up on drilling in ANWR, and will focus on hydrogen fuel-cell development and importing more oil from countries not in the Middle East.

“There are two possible routes toward a greater level of energy independence,” Mr. Abraham said. “One, is that we develop an alternative fuel source, and hydrogen is our belief as to how we do that. Second, we don’t become totally [oil] independent, but we shift a substantial amount of our [oil] trading relationships to Canada.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Abraham said new reserves in Canada had been upgraded from “potential to proven reserves,” and it would be a “good thing” if it “turns out that Canada can be a much bigger supplier” of oil to the United States.

In 1973, the United States imported 35 percent of its oil. Today, the United States imports 54 percent, and in 20 years, Mr. Abraham said, “if nothing changes, it will be 70 percent.”

“We’ve really felt that the hydrogen initiative was the game-changing technology,” said Mr. Abraham, who added that he expects hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to reach “mass-market penetration” by 2020 if Congress “fully implements our programs.”

President Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion over 10 years to help spur the change to a “hydrogen economy,” which would involve building an infrastructure from the ground up to support vehicles and home generators that burn hydrogen.

Mr. Abraham said it has been difficult to establish credibility for the administration’s alternative-fuel projects because critics harp on Mr. Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s former careers as oil executives.

“Before our energy plan was released, it was accused of being too production-oriented,” Mr. Abraham said. “Once it was released, it was even more heavily so accused, though I don’t think anybody could name three things in it that were production-oriented to this day.

“There were some, but it was treated as if it were 105 recommendations, each of which had the word ‘ANWR’ in them. I think our critics have been extraordinarily unwilling to even study what our plan is.”

Mr. Abraham said the Bush plan is “balanced” and focuses on conservation and efficiency, developing more “international partners” to import oil and the development of new energy technology, but does not ignore the need for more domestic production.

“The hydrogen initiative is particularly interesting,” Mr. Abraham said. “You have a president from [Texas], a state synonymous with oil production, and an energy secretary from [Michigan], a state synonymous with the internal-combustion engine, advocating something that transcends both.”

The secretary said there “are just not enough oil reserves here” to solve the country’s energy needs “even if we had very favorable changes in all policies, so you’ve got to find other places, and ideally, find other fuels.”

Mr. Abraham also addressed concerns about the perception that the United States would profit from the sale of Iraqi oil once the newly liberated country ramps up production to prewar levels.

“We have made it clear that we will not tell the Iraqis what to do with their oil,” Mr. Abraham said. “We did not get into this because of their oil reserves. And for that reason, among others, [the Energy Department] has not played a role, other than providing some technical experts in terms of infrastructure repair.”

While some members of the provisional Iraqi Governing Council have hinted that they would favor awarding oil contracts to companies from countries such as the United States that have aided in the country’s liberation — as opposed to countries such as France, Germany and Russia, which opposed it — Mr. Abraham said such concerns have never been considered by the administration.

“They will do what they decide to do, but they won’t do it because we’re telling them what to do and we’re not going to get them to do that,” Mr. Abraham said. “That’s the point of view that maybe France or other countries have had because of their own economic interests, but that’s not why we’re there.

“It’s never been and it’s never going to be.”

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