No quick fix in energy plan

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The energy plan that Vice President Dick Cheney hands off to President Bush this week will offer no immediate relief for high gasoline prices and no immediate answers to two of the politically trickiest issues that Cheney's task force looked at -- nuclear waste and gas mileage standards.

In an interview with The Associated Press three days before the president unveils his national energy strategy, Cheney did signal some distaste for tightening gas mileage requirements, referring to them generally as a ''command-and-control approach.''

The vice president, whose task force report already has been printed, said Monday that the Transportation Department will be ordered to study so-called corporate average fuel economy -- or CAFE standards -- after the National Academy of Sciences releases its findings on the CAFE standards in July.

The standards have, to the automobile industry's satisfaction, remained unchanged since 1975 despite the proliferation of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, vans and pickup trucks.

Acknowledging that such standards ''have made a contribution in the past'' by promoting fuel-efficient vehicles, Cheney added:

''Whether or not there are changes that are warranted, whether or not CAFE standards or the command-and-control approach is the right way to go in all of that -- we're going to look to the Department of Transportation for some guidance.''

The product of three months of Cabinet-level study and dozens of consultations with interest groups, Cheney's energy recommendations will center on increasing the nation's energy supplies though expanded nuclear power, increased domestic oil drilling and more efficient movement of energy, including electricity, natural gas and petroleum.

Bush, armed with polls showing conservation is popular, also will discuss alternative energy sources when he releases the report Thursday during a trip to Minnesota and Iowa.

On Tuesday, Cheney previewed the plan for advocates for solar, wind and other renewable energy, who emerged from the private meeting and told reporters that Cheney promised that his recommendations include:

n An extension of the wind energy production tax credit.

n A 15 percent residential tax credit for users of solar power.

n An order for the Interior Department to address permitting delays in geothermal plants.

Cheney won unlikely -- but not unconditional -- support during a similar private meeting Monday with labor leaders from the Teamsters and big building trade unions who like what Teamsters president James Hoffa called ''the amazing hundreds of thousands of jobs'' that new drilling and new pipelines could create.

But, participants in the meeting said, Cheney would not guarantee that the jobs would be union jobs or, in response to a question from the Steelworkers union, that new pipelines would be made from U.S. steel rather than cheaper imports.

''We still have to look at the details,'' Hoffa said.

In Monday's interview, Cheney bristled at suggestions that the administration should be doing more to bring gasoline prices down. But he did leave open the possibility of Bush backing a reduction of the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which is being proposed by GOP lawmakers fearing their party will be blamed in the 2002 congressional elections if energy prices soar.

''It might help temporarily,'' Cheney said.

A letter signed by nearly 70 Democratic lawmakers Monday urged Bush to demand relief from the OPEC oil-producing cartel and order a Federal Trade Commission inquiry into potential price gouging.

''Your administration has done little at this late date to address the coming crisis in gasoline prices,'' the Democrats' letter read.

Democrats and environmentalists have accused Bush and Cheney, both former oilmen, of catering to the energy industry here at home.

Cheney said jawboning OPEC may bring America the ''momentary joy'' of lower prices but the market would quickly respond with increases. The remarks were in contrast to Bush, who promised during his presidential campaign that if elected he would use his influence to tell OPEC, ''Open your spigots!'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that the administration is quietly and diplomatically talking with OPEC leaders.

On the Democrats' other request, Cheney said, ''There's no reason to believe there's price gouging.'' The only reason to order up an FTC investigation now would be to give the appearance of having a solution, he said.

On nuclear power, Cheney wants to give utilities incentives to build more nuclear plants, which would force the nation to deal with the problem of nuclear waste.

Nevada's Yucca Mountain is the ''furthest along and most advanced'' high-level nuclear waste repository, Cheney said. But, he added, ''even there we're not to the point yet where we can make a final decision.''

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