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Energy Task Force Works in Secret Like Clinton Health Effort, Cheney Group Aims to Limit Leaks, Flak _____Special Report_____ By Dana Milbank and Eric Pianin Washington Post Staff Writers Monday, April 16, 2001; Page A01

The Bush administration's energy task force is something of a secret society. At the start of each meeting with outside groups, task-force members request that the session be off the record. They say they will share no documents, to prevent information from leaking. The members are expected not to talk to the media, and the few who do are not able to talk about policy. "There really isn't anything to talk about," said an official from the Transportation Department. "I'm sorry, but we're not going to discuss process," said an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman who intercepted a call to a task force staffer -- and then asked that his name not be used with his no comment. Why such secrecy? The broad outline of the policy recommendations, after all, is not in doubt. The final proposal, anticipated within the next three or four weeks, will be heavily focused on increased production of oil, gas and coal and investment in new refineries, pipelines and power grids, according to those familiar with the discussions. The silence, rather, is an effort to keep a low-key atmosphere around the task force's deliberations. By limiting exposure, the administration is calculating that it can limit criticism. To close followers of government, the shroud of secrecy may seem familiar: It is precisely the approach taken by Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care task force at the same point in the Clinton administration. Members of the Bush energy task force, headed by Vice President Cheney, say they are determined to avoid the disastrous fate that befell that previous task force. They say that despite some obvious similarities in approach, their goal -- solving the nation's energy supply-demand imbalance -- is more circumscribed and achievable than overhauling America's health care system. "We're not out to reengineer the nation's electric system," said Lawrence B. Lindsey, the president's chief economic adviser and a member of the task force. Still, addressing the nation's energy problems is one of the top priorities for the new administration, and some of the issues the task force plans to tackle could spark the same kind of outcry created by the Clinton health task force. Administration officials familiar with the deliberations say the task force is looking at everything from increased drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge and the Rocky Mountains to more emphasis on nuclear power and energy conservation. For Bush's energy team, as for the Clinton health care task force, the problem is less in coming up with a set of recommendations than in selling its ideas to the public. While Clinton's advisers labored in secrecy, out-of-context news reports made wrong impressions, and the feeding frenzy by opponents once the plan was released contributed to its downfall. A similar danger faces the Bush task force as reports come out about controversial elements in its plan, including more drilling and more nuclear power plants. "There will be quite a political reaction to that, and not just from the anti nuclear-proliferation types," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute. "It's from anyone who doesn't want a plant in their back yard." Already, there are signs of the divisions. Environmental groups complain that Cheney won't meet with their leaders while the vice president sits down with a parade of industry officials. The nation's powerful environmental lobby is ready to pounce on any report that will shift policy from conservation toward increased energy production -- a central argument of the Bush report. Some outsiders say the administration is courting trouble with its closed approach. Ira Magaziner, who ran the Clinton health care task force, said it was a "huge mistake" to restrict the news about the health care task force. It didn't work, and it created hostility, he said. "My experience taught me from a political and public policy point of view, it's better keeping things open." Magaziner would know. In 1993, The Washington Post wrote about the Clinton task force's information "blackout," designed "to stop reporters and lobbyists from bothering the staff." The Clinton administration was even sued by critics for keeping its meetings closed to the public. As for its proposals, "the public can't read them, and the staff can't even photocopy them for fear the copies might be leaked," The Post wrote. Bush officials are well aware that the two task forces have similarities, in timing and importance. Both focused on complex, divisive issues that pitted consumers against industry. And both administrations sought to keep their subject confidential to keep the public's attention on other matters (Clinton's economic plan and Bush's tax cut) and to prevent opposition from organizing. The Bush energy advisers say the silent approach is necessary. "We didn't want to make it into a circus," a task force official said. "I don't think this process would be able to get done what needs to get done in a relatively short time frame unless we opened the doors to input, hunkered down, did our due diligence and did our deliberations." Instead, Bush advisers believe the tight structure of their energy task force will prevent some of the public relations problems that plagued the Clinton group. Clinton's was an unwieldy operation of about 15 committees and 34 working groups, relying on about 500 staff members, several of whom weren't even government workers; the Bush task force has a dozen members and a similar number of staffers. Clinton's report exceeded 1,300 pages; Bush advisers are aiming for a less-detailed report of about 100 pages. Keeping with the general tone of the Bush administration, the energy group is small and highly disciplined. The task force has met four or five times since January and now plans to consult on a weekly basis in the vice president's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It includes the vice president; the secretaries of energy, interior, transportation, agriculture, commerce and treasury; the heads of EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Bush's deputy staff chief Joshua Bolten; intergovernmental affairs adviser Ruben Barrales; budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.; and Lindsey. Running the effort is Andrew Lundquist, 40, an Alaska native who has worked for both of the state's senators, most recently as staff director of the Senate Energy Committee. His deputy is fellow Alaskan Karen Knutson, and the two, with three other staffers, meet weekly with the people in each Cabinet agency assigned to the task force. The staffers have received thousands of recommendations from hundreds of groups and met personally with many of them. For Bush's task force, the challenge is to present the controversial calls for more drilling, power plants and possibly nuclear power with plans for conservation and renewable energy. "If our demand is outstripping our supply even at the current pace, we will need 1,900 power generating plants to keep up with demand by 2020," said Mary Matalin, a top Cheney adviser. She said that because nuclear power is 20 percent of the nation's supply, the United States must "at a minimum relicense" existing plants. But, she added, "we're looking at a lot of renewables, alternative resources and technology to make existing resources clean and safe." The emerging report is expected to be divided into 10 broad chapters, beginning with several that address supply and demand trends and the competing concerns about health, the environment and the economy. There are also chapters on energy efficiency and renewable fuels, but the bulk of the report is devoted to domestic oil and gas production, investment in technology to find cleaner ways of burning coal, and the need for expanded infrastructure. According to sources familiar with the report, the task force will try hard to put a human face on the issue by including examples of how energy shortages and soaring prices work the greatest hardships on low-income families and minorities. Task force aides have also stressed their interest in "market-based" initiatives and tax incentives to encourage increased domestic production. Suggestions include a "smart" power-grid system with flexible pricing that charges consumers more for power during peak hours -- much as telephone companies do. Another possibility is an "energy ombudsman" to deal with community objections to new power plants. Lindsey said he believes in easing the regulations that have prevented new power plants from being built. "There do seem to be legitimate regulatory hurdles and uncertainty," he said. "We don't want to ease clean air standards or anything like that, but there's a need to ease the uncertainty." Overall, the task force will take energy policy more in the direction of increasing supply than reducing demand, which has been the dominant approach in recent years. Although demand "is a matter of concern, certainly, it's mostly a supply problem," Lindsey said. Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham have repeatedly called for measures to expand the capacity of existing nuclear power plants and to bring new ones on line to meet long-term energy needs. Also, as part of his budget submission to Congress, Bush has proposed a 14 percent increase in federal spending for a project studying whether to use Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a permanent burial ground for 77,000 tons of high-level waste now stored at nuclear power plants and defense sites nationwide. That proposal has encountered strong resistance in Nevada. Another recommendation sure to cause consternation is domestic drilling. The task force report will include Bush's proposal for oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite strong opposition from influential Republicans and Democrats as well as the leading environmental groups. Moreover, the Interior Department has submitted recommendations for opening millions of acres of public land to new oil and gas development, much of it in the Rocky Mountains. Balancing those hot-button items, task force officials say they will also have "hidden gems" that will please environmentalists. "We're going to have conservation, we're going to have renewables, and thoughtful pieces on the environment," one said. "There's pieces the renewables crowd and energy efficiency groups will be very supportive of." Task force officials have also said the report would not specify precisely where on public lands to drill for oil and gas, leaving those decisions to future negotiations between the administration, Congress and special interest groups.
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