Energy Task Force Courted Industry, Excluded Green Groups
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Thousands of documents released Monday by the Bush administration appear to support charges that environmental and citizen groups were given short shrift last year by the Bush administration's energy policy task force. Conservation groups and Congressional Democrats have charged that the energy industry exerted too much influence over the crafting of the nation's official energy policy.
With great fanfare, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the more than 11,000 documents released would prove that the agency had made numerous efforts to seek and incorporate input from public interest groups during the 2001 meetings of Vice President Richard Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Task Force.
But a review of the documents shows that while Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham held meetings with 36 representatives of the energy industry and other business industries, as well as many Bush campaign contributors, the DOE held no meetings with consumer or conservation groups.
The release, ordered by federal courts in two separate cases brought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), includes documents from the DOE, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget, the agencies most involved with the energy task force.
However, thousands of documents were withheld, and of those that were released, many were edited and censored, missing their attachments, and in some cases reduced to nothing but a title or subject line.
The DOE says the information was withheld under specific exemptions to FOIA that cover information "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency," and "personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which could constitute unwarranted invasion of privacy."
Also excluded was information consisting of "pre-decisional and deliberative process material," such as early drafts of the National Energy Policy and comments and questions about that draft, the DOE said.
For 11 months, the Bush administration resisted petitions and lawsuits filed by public interest groups, Congressional Democrats and the General Accounting Office seeking the release of schedules, attendance lists and other documents related to the task force meetings.
The documents released Monday night mark the first public release of any task force papers, and the first confirmation of the extent to which energy producers may have helped shape the Bush energy policy, released May 16, 2001.
Because the documents are so heavily edited, the groups whose lawsuits forced the release, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Judicial Watch, a public interest law firm, say they may take additional legal action against the administration.
The Bush energy policy calls for a dramatic boost in domestic production of fossil fuels and nuclear power, largely from public lands, while making few concessions to the need for energy conservation and renewable energy sources.
The U.S. Senate is now reviewing legislation that would implement much of the Bush energy plan, including a controversial provision to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The Senate is expected to vote on that provision when it returns from its spring recess in two weeks.
Among the corporations who met with Secretary Abraham regarding the energy task force were energy giants Duke Power, Entergy, Exelon Corporation and the American Coal Company, and industry groups the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the National Association of Manufacturers.
In contrast, the documents list no meetings with environmental groups or other public interest groups.
On Monday, the DOE issued a statement arguing that "substantial public input" went into developing the Bush administration's energy policy.
"The National Energy Policy is a balanced and comprehensive energy plan for America," said Secretary Abraham. "The information released today will only further confirm that it was indeed a balanced plan that not only sought but included all viewpoints. It assures the American people that it was an open and appropriate process."
According to the DOE, "Department officials carefully considered the views of energy experts, stakeholders and public interest groups who chose to participate." The agency added, "in many cases, documents were obtained from the web sites of stakeholder organizations, many of which have been publicly available for the past year."
Conservation groups counter that lifting position papers off a website is not the same as holding open and detailed discussions with environmentalists regarding their views on energy policy. The NRDC also disputes the DOE's assertion that the final Bush energy policy includes any of the recommendations made by the group in its own energy report.
For example, the DOE released a copy of an energy report by the NRDC, titled "A Responsible Energy Policy for the 21st Century," which the agency claims was "carefully reviewed by DOE staff and resulted in nine of 19 NRDC recommendations (47 percent) getting included in the National Energy Plan."
Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the NRDC, said the DOE's claim is "an outright lie," adding that the NRDC finds little evidence that the administration made any attempt to collect or consider recommendations from environmentalists.
The DOE's own documents indicate that the administration did not make substantial efforts to contact conservation groups until late March 2001.
"Successful contacts and at least one substantive discussion was held," with each of 10 environmental and energy efficiency groups, states a memo from the DOE to the General Accounting Office sent in August 2001.
"We asked each organization for policy suggestions that might be considered for inclusion in the national plan directed toward energy supply, conservation or efficiency," the memo continues. "Not all organizations were responsive. Several did not return phone calls and messages."
The groups in turn claim that they made numerous efforts to contact the DOE with their suggestions on energy policy, but were rebuffed.
Energy industry representatives and major Republican campaign donors met no such resistance, however. About a dozen of the major corporations whose members met with Secretary Abraham, including oil companies and utilities, contributed a combined total of about $1.2 million to the Republican party during the 2000 election cycle that led to George W. Bush's presidency.
The DOE documents also show meetings between Abraham and several officials from the now bankrupt Enron, as well as the heads of more than 20 oil companies and energy trade groups.
President Bush was briefed on the task force's progress as early as March 19, shortly before the General Accounting Office's (GAO) first request for documents related to the task force.
Just after the GAO's request, made at the behest of two Democrat Congress members, the DOE began warning its employees to take care in discussing the task force. "We have an FOI request for all NEPP material," states an April 25 E-mail from an unnamed official. "Keep in mind that whatever I get I will have to include with it."
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