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Major Garrett: The Bush energy plan

Major Garrett is a White House correspondent for CNN.

Q: What are the highlights of the President's energy plan?

GARRETT: Highlight number one is that thereās nothing for members of Congress or the general public seeking a short-term fix for either the electricity shortages in California or the high gas prices in certain parts of the country. Highlight number two reflects the three-pronged approach that the White House believes can yield the best approach to dealing with the wide range of Americaās energy problems. First, the White House is trying to strike what it considers a balance not only politically, but also as a policy matter, to encourage increased production of domestic supplies of energy. Second, the plan encourages conservation, not only at the Federal government level, but also in the private sector. Third, the plan speaks to improve the means by which the United States moves energy around the country. But the presidentās speech offered no short-term solution for Californians paying soaring electricity bills or any short-term relief for motorists paying in some parts of the country upwards of $2 a gallon for gasoline.

The Energy Crunch

Q: What criticism is the plan being met with from environmentalists?

GARRETT: The central criticism is that, while the administration talks a good game about conservation, it relies far too much on dealing with the future on boosting domestic supplies of energy. Environmentalists believe there is no reason to revisit some of the environmental issues they thought they had won for good in the 1970s and 1980s.

What might those issues be? The future of nuclear power in the United States. There has not been a new nuclear power plant built since 1973 largely because there were concerns about safety and the environment, specifically what to do with the spent nuclear fuel that comes from the reactors. Where do you put it? The government still has not decided what to do with the nuclear waste that already exists now. Environmentalists thought they had won that argument.

They thought that they won the argument about drilling offshore and in the Arctic National wildlife refuge. They thought they had won the argument about drilling in environmentally-sensitive federal lands in the mountains west. The Bush energy action plan revisits all of those issues, puts them squarely on the table and asks Congress to approve new drilling for oil and gas in all of these places and to expedite the permitting process so there can be more nuclear power plants built in the United States to provide electricity.

It is these policy proposals that environmentalists contend are very old school and backward looking. They believe and assert that if the White House emphasized new ways to conserve energy, many of these new sources of energy would not be required because through conservation the country could still meet its energy needs. The White House simply does not agree. They say that conservation, while helpful, cannot possibly create enough supply to meet the needs of a growing country and an increasingly energy dependent new age economy.

Q: Which points in the plan are most likely to be challenged in Congress?

GARRETT: Well, the President is asking, as I mentioned before, to revisit a lot of these environmental issues as they relate to boosting domestic energy production. These include natural gas and oils, changing rules about drilling off shore, changing rules about whether or not to drill in the Arctic National wildlife refuge, or in the mountains west. All of those are likely to encounter significant scrutiny in Congress.

The White House is also proposing that the federal government be given the power to place either electricity lines or natural gas lines where they believe they need to be placed to more efficiently move energy across the country using a power known as eminent domain. This is where the government simply takes land and says that it is in the public interest for this land to be taken for this larger governmental purpose and the land owners have very limited rights to prevent the government from so doing. That could encounter some resistance on Capitol Hill, especially from Republicans who are very sympathetic to private property owners who believe already that the federal government has too much power over privately held lands.

The plan will encounter opposition in Congress for what it does not include. Some members of Congress believe that there should be a price cap applied to the cost of electricity in California. Others believe that the federal gasoline tax now at 18.4 percent should be repealed. Neither are in the Bush energy plan. Those ideas will circulate and possibly gain momentum in Congress if prices really spin out of control in California and at the gas pump.

Q: Why has the secrecy of the Cheney energy commission not been met with the same criticism of the Hillary Clinton health care commission of 1993?

GARRETT: That is a hard question to answer. At one level the answer would be perhaps the entrenched organized opposition was not as great. The panels are somewhat similar. Although, one distinction that the Bush White House draws is that all of the principal decision-makers are federal employees. This was the normal consultation process that any White House goes thorough on any public policy issue when it has conversations, as it did in this case, with Labor Unions, energy interests, and others.

There is a contention that the Bush White House makes that this task force was much less formal that the Hillary Clinton health care task force. That is their response. But as to why it hasnāt to become a greater issue and a more legally actionable issue -- there were actual legal actions taken against the Hillary Clinton task force because of its secrecy ö I am sure that if the opponents could have found a legal basis on which to challenge this task force, they would have. The fact that they have not filed legal papers and that they have not received the attention of those who filed against the Hillary Clinton health care task force suggests to me that they are in fact different enough that the same concerns raised Hillary Clintonās case are not present now.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

GARRETT: There were a couple interesting things in the speech. One was the repeated use of the word diversity in the speech. Those online who want to go back an look at the speech, I would encourage you to count the number of times the president said the word diversity. Diversity is a very soothing word in American political culture and rhetoric right now. It almost carries a virtue all of its own. No one is opposed to diversity ö ethnic diversity, gender diversity and diversity in the workplace are thought of as a good thing. I found it very interesting that that word kept appearing in the presidentās speech about a rather mundane topic: energy. Who would have thought that diversity would crop up that often in a speech about diversity.

But what the president I think was trying to do is suggest through the repeated use of that word, that this policy is not just about old school forms of energy like oil or natural gas, but that it does have an eye toward hydro-electric power, solar power, wind generated power and other forms of energy. And that his administration, though often times criticized as one beholden to the energy, oil and natural gas interests, that it in fact has diversified its approach. I am not saying that it is actually true. I am saying that it appears to me that is one of the achievements he is trying to bring about with the speech. And I thought that was very interesting. I would point our online readers in that direction and let them judge for themselves.

• The White House
• U.S. Department of Energy
• Environmental Protection Agency
• American Electric Power Company
• The California ISO
• Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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