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Lower prices may hurt Bush energy plan

As the Bush administration begins a campaign-style push to drum up support for its energy plan this week, the sense of crisis that had propelled the plan forward has receded while energy shortages ease and fuel prices fall, at least for now.

Gasoline prices have been going down for six weeks and now average $1.47 a gallon, compared with $1.71 a gallon during the week of May 14, when the administration unveiled its energy strategy, according to the Department of Energy. Natural gas prices have dropped even faster and now average less than a third of the peak levels they reached early this year. In both cases, high prices spurred fresh production.

In California, where record electricity prices and local blackouts captured national attention, wholesale power prices have fallen to the lowest levels in more than a year. Analysts credit new power supplies, a state-led conservation effort and federal price controls for averting what many had feared would be a catastrophic summer of scarcity.

Administration officials said their energy strategy was intended to address long-term shortages, not short-term market fluctuations. But the surge of gasoline, natural gas and electricity supplies appears to undercut the administration's contention, as stated at the beginning of its energy strategy report, that "America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s."

The White House had once counted on a sense of emergency to persuade Congress to allow drilling on more protected lands, and to change or abandon some regulations seen as impeding energy production.

Softer prices have diminished the sense of crisis and forced the administration to retreat from some priorities on Capitol Hill. The only energy-related proposals that have garnered broad bipartisan support are those that push energy conservation, a subject that critics say got short shrift in the president's energy plan.

"If we were having blackouts every day, you can be sure the president would be out there insisting that we drill in the Arctic or else," said David Freeman, who is coordinating California's response to its electricity shortages for Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. "The fact that we've managed to keep the lights on and bring prices way down doesn't help his case much."

The president's case has also been hurt by polls showing that many people view his energy policies as favoring big oil companies at the expense of the environment. Some Republicans said a backlash against the energy plan had diminished the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney, its main architect.

Bush is still turning to Cheney, and to members of the Cabinet, to stir up public and congressional enthusiasm for drilling and other measures as the House takes up energy legislation this week.

Yet even House Republicans say prospects for the most contested measures have faded with the price scare. For instance, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said there was no chance Congress would approve drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"ANWR is to energy policy as vouchers are to education policy," Boehlert said. "It's going nowhere."

The White House got a rare legislative victory on energy last week when the Senate rejected a measure to block new drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico. But that vote came after the administration scaled back its own plan to drill in the eastern Gulf, caving in to criticism from many Florida politicians, including Gov. Jeb Bush.

The administration has fared less well in other votes. The Senate voted last week against opening lands designated national monuments for coal, oil and gas exploration. The House passed a measure that would ban drilling under the Great Lakes.

And though the administration says it is awaiting a scientific analysis before deciding whether to set higher fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, a pivotal House panel voted last week to mandate that sport utility vehicles and minivans perform more efficiently.