So, We've Got an Energy Plan. How Much of it Will Fly?

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After launching his energy plan, the president tours a power plant in St. Paul

"America needs an energy plan that faces up to our energy challenges and meets them," President Bush said in St. Paul on Thursday as he made his "major national policy address" to give the 105 principles of Dick Cheney's task force a presidential face.

The report is alarmist — "America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s," it reads — and the recipe is ambitious, coalescing around three main ingredients. Supply (more power plants and refineries, less regulations), demand (tax breaks for conservation and energy efficiency), and the bridge between the two, transmission — specifically an interstate electrical grid and national pipeline network that Bush compared Thursday to the Eisenhower-spawned interstate highway system.

Two looming congressional fights

Thirty-five of the report's 105 principles are in the service of its main focus: increasing supplies and improving energy infrastructure. Forty-two, the White House said, are aimed at "increasing conservation, environmental protection and use of alternative fuels."

And only 20 require congressional action. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says he'll push for passage of the energy plan by July 4 — after the tax cut gets written and education gets dealt with — and also predicted some items will be "hotly debated."

  • Such as drilling for oil and natural gas in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Though Bush added a typically combative wrinkle to that debate Thursday by tying $1.2 billion in funding for alternative and renewable energy sources to royalties from ANWR drilling, congressional handicappers still say Alaska drilling is a non-starter. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert telegraphed as much Wednesday when he said the Bush would have to make a "much better case" than they have been so far.

  • Such as giving congressional authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — rather than state officials — over the locations of transmission towers. You can't build an interstate transmission network without ponying up some private land, but this will set Bush at odds with some of his fastest Republican friends: property-rights-sensitive folks in the Western states.

    For now, mostly hot air

    But as TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller reports, most of the Bush plan is long-term, non-specific, or by executive order (namely, directing federal agencies to expedite permits for new power plants and provide an "energy impact" statement for "any regulatory action that could significantly and adversely affect energy supplies").

    "There's not a whole lot in this energy package that's going to demand legislation," Waller says. "Less than a lot of people in Congress were expecting." Instead, he says, the congressional battles between now and July won't be over the future of energy, but the present: high gas and electric prices that have constituents screaming, and the public perception that oilmen like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may be congenitally unsympathetic to their plight.

    "The whole energy policy is leaving congressional Republicans very nervous, especially in the House, where they're all up for re-election in 2002. Their opinion polls show that most people suspect that this energy shortage is contrived by Big Oil and the energy companies, and if gas prices are bad this summer, they're likely to blame Bush, Cheney and the Republicans for not doing enough about it."

    "This is why Democrats are hitting hard on charges that the White House is ignoring price-gouging by those companies, and going after Bush because his policy doesn't address America's near-term energy woes."

    And then there's the issue of presentation. "Internal polling from both Democrats and Republicans show that Americans aren't willing to sacrifice the environment for increased supply of energy — a big vulnerability for the Republicans, and an opportunity for the Democrats, which is why Bush stressed environmentally friendliness so heavily in his speech," says Waller.

    "But Republicans find that the numbers change when the question is framed as one of economic security. If the energy crunch means layoffs, job dislocation, and high fuel prices, people are a lot more responsive. So that's the way Republicans are going to try to frame this debate down the road."

    Here's a short-term plan: re-election in 2002

    Meanwhile, the GOP is scrambling to fill in the gaps between Bush's long-term vision and the vulnerability they're feeling as summer driving season approaches. Bush's Energy Department is doing its part, insisting in its latest oil/gas forecast that "supplies are expected to improve and the chances that spot and retail prices will calm down are good." But Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent out a memo Wednesday listing six ideas which "will solve our energy problems in the short term."

    The ideas: Repeal the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax; increase imports of refined petroleum from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela by removing environmental requirements for reformulated gasoline; reduce the EPA's categories of "boutique" fuels to three regional blends; waiving the "oxygenate mandate" in fuels; increasing the legal per-mile deduction for business or charitable gasoline use; and asking states temporarily to waive tolls on major roads during peak travel.

    The point, of course, is that George W. Bush is trying to create fundamental changes in the energy marketplace that will ease America's energy woes for decades to come, and the environmental cost of that will be the subject of plenty of rancorous debate every step of the way. But for congressional Republicans trying to avoid getting scapegoated in 2002 for a president who's safe until 2004 — and for Democrats eagerly trying to do the scapegoating — politics is only as long-term as the average voter's attention span.

    And they'll be expending a lot of energy over the next few months trying to conserve at least one thing — their jobs.