U-Turn on Emissions Shows Big Energy Clout

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Speech writers for President Bush were polishing his first major address to Congress last month when a top energy executive called one of the president's closest aides. The request: Urge Bush to drop a line from the speech restating his campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

The line came out. Unclear at the time was that this deletion of just a few words foretold Bush's abrupt reversal on the issue this week.

The call from the energy executive was only one of countless frantic telephone calls from lobbyists to administration officials and blunt conversations between White House staff and members of Congress culminating in the first abandonment of a campaign pledge in Bush's two-month-old presidency.

On Wednesday, Bush denied he had given in to industry pressure. At the same time, administration officials took pains to try to minimize the damage to Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman, who had recently reiterated Bush's policy in interviews and appeared to have been undermined by the announcement.

"We were involved at every step," said Whitman spokeswoman Tina Kreisher.

But the turnabout clearly indicated how tricky it may be for Bush to act on environmental issues without running afoul of the pro-energy juggernaut he has unleashed.

It also showed the immense clout of the energy industry in this political climate--strong enough to begin with but now magnified by the power panic in the West.

When Bush pledged during his presidential campaign to impose a new federal policy on the carbon dioxide emissions by power plants, the energy and utility industries took note but were not alarmed. Company officials assumed that a Republican president would proceed gingerly and in an industry-friendly way.

The energy industry's confidence came in part because of the generous financial donations it gave to the Bush presidential campaign and the fact that the industry is well represented in the administration by alumni who now hold key White House positions.

The coal mining industry alone contributed $1.9 million in unlimited donations to political parties, known as soft money, in 1999-2000, three-quarters of it to Republicans, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. This was a sixfold increase from the previous election.

Whitman's Statements Prompted Lobbying

When news spread in the industry that Bush planned to include a line about regulating carbon dioxide emissions as an environment-friendly nod in his first big congressional speech, however, their worries started, according to a well-placed industry lobbyist, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear it would blackball him with the new administration.

But the real lobbying maelstrom--from congressional and industry opponents--was prompted by Whitman's statements the day before and the day of Bush's Feb. 27 speech to Congress. Speaking on a television talk show and to reporters after a Senate hearing, she reiterated Bush's interest in regulating carbon dioxide as part of a multipollutant strategy to reduce global warming.

"The spark that ignited the anxiety in the energy companies was when EPA Administrator Whitman made her comments," said Jack Gerard, president of the National Mining Assn. "It appeared that she had the pretty firmly held view where [the policy] was going. That was news to all of us."

Energy and industry lobbyists brought up the subject in all the calls and meetings they had with each other, with lawmakers and their staffs, and with their contacts in the new administration.

Bush Warned Against Regulation

They warned Bush that by regulating carbon dioxide he would doom his ongoing effort to craft legislation promoting the production of more inexpensive energy from diverse sources.

"All of us, out of concern, began to register our concerns about what a mandatory carbon dioxide regulation would do" to the administration's hopes for designing a successful energy policy, Gerard added.

Effort Called Spontaneous

Gerard and others suggested that the Bush administration changed its position so quickly that there was no time for an orchestrated lobbying campaign. Instead, the effort was spontaneous and pell-mell.

The industry lobbyists reminded Bush officials that they had expected a GOP administration to be accommodating but instead the Bush administration had already struck a blow to industry by embracing a decision made late in the Clinton administration to require a drastic reduction of sulfur in diesel fuel.

Four GOP senators who were concerned about imposing regulations on carbon dioxide emissions wrote to Bush. The March 6 letter quoted Whitman's comments, made the case against the regulations and asked for a "clarification" of the administration policy. Bush's response to that letter was the unusual vehicle for announcing his policy on carbon dioxide emissions.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over legislation regulating carbon dioxide, was particularly outspoken. He made his vehement opposition known in person to Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and an array of other top administration officials.

Regulation Chances Appeared Dead

On Friday, he and GOP House leadership staffers met with administration officials, including Andrew Lundquist, chief of Bush's national energy policy development group. Their goal was to drive home the point that, even if Bush wanted to regulate carbon dioxide, he could not get legislation through Congress to do so.

Barton "was extremely firm" in refusing to allow legislation through his committee regulating carbon dioxide emissions, said Sa mantha Jordan, his spokeswoman.

The message was clearly getting through. The issue was the subject of a series of staff meetings during the last two weeks with participants from agencies including the State, Energy, Commerce and Treasury departments and the EPA.

On Friday, a staff recommendation was sent to the president, and over the weekend aides started drafting the letter Bush sent Tuesday to the four senators, said Dan Bartlett, deputy counselor to the president.

Personal Meeting With EPA Chief

Bush did not sign off on it until Tuesday morning, announcing his decision after a midmorning meeting on the budget in the Oval Office.

Bush met personally with Whitman about 10 a.m. Tuesday to tell her what he had decided.

On Wednesday, Bush told reporters that his decision was not in response to industry pressure.

"I was responding to reality," Bush said, commenting during a tour of an after-school mentoring program in Plainfield, N.J. "And reality is the nation has got a real problem when it comes to energy. We need more sources of energy. We need more power plants. We need more exploration for natural gas. And we need clean coal technology. I am concerned that if we don't act in a common-sense way that our people will not be able to heat and cool their homes."

In the aftermath of the announcement, the administration clearly was trying to counter the impression that Whitman had been undercut.

Her spokeswoman, Kreisher, said Whitman was not giving any interviews, and Kreisher restricted her comments to one sentence. Bartlett confirmed that Whitman and her top aides were fully involved in the process that overturned the policy. Whitman's earlier statements reflected the administration's position at the time, he added.

*

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°