All-Out Attack on Bush Energy Plan Is Readied

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Minnesota environmentalists will taunt and jeer from a block away when President Bush unveils his national energy strategy in St. Paul. A coalition of green groups is expected to purchase TV time to attack the administration manifesto in key markets. Congressional Democrats temporarily commandeered a Capitol Hill gas station to plug their competing energy initiative.

For the environmental community--and the Democrats in Congress who support their causes--Thursday's roll-out of the Bush administration's comprehensive energy plan will be the political equivalent of D-day.

"The environmental community is going to put more money into this than any other campaign in its history because there is so much at stake," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "What they are assembling is an all-out attack on environmental protections."

Opponents of the administration's energy policies say they are preparing to wage a ferocious battle with the energy industry and its congressional allies to prevent what they fear could be the potential reversal of decades of hard-won gains.

Even before it has been released, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the Bush energy plan a "recipe for disaster" and stressed that "Democrats will throw themselves on the train tracks" to stop it.

The energy policy showdown is shaping up as a critical test of the political muscle and marketing savvy of environmental lobbyists. The outcome will depend in large part on their ability to maintain alliances with Capitol Hill Democrats--and some Republicans who face tough reelection battles--who can help them kill the provisions they consider most harmful.

House and Senate Democrats have already produced alternate energy plans that place more emphasis on protecting the environment and promoting energy efficiency. That contrasts with an administration plan that is expected to emphasize increased production of energy.

"We're not willing to kick the environment over, as the Bush administration seems willing to do, to get more supply," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Groups Coalesce in Opposition

Environmental groups, which are presenting a united front against the administration plan, oppose many of its basic elements, including:

* Drilling for oil and gas on public land where extraction is now prohibited or discouraged, such as on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.

* Expanding electricity production from coal-fired plants, which environmentalists argue will increase emission of harmful pollutants and carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming.

* Increasing electricity production by nuclear plants, an unacceptable option to environmentalists, who generally consider the prospect of more nuclear waste a risk too big to take.

Environmental activists also expect the administration to provide few incentives to increase the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind power and fuel cells, or to set out a clear plan for reducing emission of carbon dioxide.

"When you're talking about constructing new power-generating sources, you're talking about an infrastructure that will last for many years to come. If we don't do it right, our grandchildren will suffer," said Scott Elkins, Minnesota state director of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are organizing a protest near the energy-efficient power plant that Bush plans to use as a backdrop when he presents his energy plan to the nation Thursday.

Elkins said he was surprised by the scores of calls his office has received from people who want to let Bush know they oppose his plan. Although the 100-page document has not been released, its key principles have been described by Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed the task force that drafted it.

The callers expressed concern about the administration's expected emphasis on fossil fuels and nuclear power to expand electricity supplies, and its less aggressive embrace of efficiency improvements and energy conservation, Elkins said.

"People are very disappointed. They didn't expect this out of Bush," he said.

TV Ads Targeted to Certain Areas

It is those kinds of sentiments that environmentalists hope to encourage with their multifaceted attack on the Bush energy plan. They intend to pool funds to run television commercials "in places where people are undecided as to what they think and where we think we can influence the debate," said Dan Becker, an energy specialist at the Sierra Club. The groups with large memberships, such as the 650,000-member Sierra Club, will mobilize members to call, write and e-mail key lawmakers to urge them to oppose the administration plan.

The business community in general and energy industry in particular are backing Bush's plan. But recent polls have convinced them that environmentalists may have the edge in public opinion, making them formidable opponents.

"They're very good at casting a message," said William Kovacs, who focuses on energy and environmental issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Hundreds of local chambers and trade associations have formed the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth to press the business community to counteract the grass-roots efforts of environmentalists.

"It's up to [the] American business community to educate the public about the need for additional energy resources and the adverse impacts on our quality of life and our economy if we don't get the additional resources," Kovacs said.

Environmentalists will have ready allies on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have come to see battling the White House on green issues as one of their most effective political strategies heading into the 2002 congressional races.

House Democrats are planning to set up a "war room" Thursday to serve as a command center for their attacks on the Bush plan. They launched a preemptive strike Tuesday, unveiling a more conservation-focused proposal.

The House Democrats go head-to-head with the Bush team on several issues. They oppose construction of new nuclear plants, relaxation of environmental regulations and new drilling in Alaska. They are promoting a number of short-term measures opposed by the White House, including the release of crude oil from U.S. strategic reserves and the imposition of temporary price controls on wholesale electricity supplies to California.

The Democratic plan calls for the government to impose "maximum feasible fuel economy" standards for light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. It would increase funding for research into fuel cells and other alternative energy technologies.

Consumers who buy energy efficient cars and homes would get tax breaks, as would companies that embrace renewable fuels and reduce emissions. There would also be a tax break to encourage construction of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48 states.

There are a few areas of agreement between Democrats and the White House, including support of tax breaks for development of alternative energy sources and weatherization of homes.

And like the White House, Democrats are being careful not to call for consumer sacrifices to reduce energy consumption. Democrats "do not advocate energy policies that will require rationing or reductions in our standard of living," the plan states on its first page. Indeed, the cover of the document features a photo of a happy family washing their sport-utility vehicle.

Reid, ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, predicted that Bush's plan will draw opposition even within Republican ranks.

"I don't think [the battle] will be as big as people think because I don't think he has the support of many Republicans," Reid said. "I think he'll be brought back to the reality of what the nation needs and wants."

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