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Bush's energy plan hard to sell

| Tuesday, July 17, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Six months ago, heating bills caused rage and high blood pressure. Two months ago, soaring gasoline prices angered motorists.

Now natural gas prices are down. And the comprehensive Lundberg Survey that tracks gasoline prices just reported that average prices fell 13 cents over the past several weeks.

Most people are relatively happy about energy costs, at least today.

And that makes the task of Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in Pittsburgh on Monday for a town hall meeting to sell the Bush administration's energy plan, more difficult than it would have been not long ago.

Western Pennsylvania should be receptive to Bush's energy proposals. The area was the site of the world's first oil boom and is among the nation's largest coal-producing regions. In the 1950s, Westinghouse Electric Corp. played a significant role in developing nuclear power for the Navy.

Yet public opinion here generally mirrors the mixed reaction the plan has received throughout the nation - with a few parochial exceptions, such as the region's strong support for the coal industry, which is anathema to environmentalists.

'Earlier this year, price spikes - both with gasoline and natural gas - created concern,' said Cliff Shannon, president of the SMC Business Council, which represents some 5,000 small businesses in the region.

But, Shannon said, 'People have short memories, and better prices make the president's energy plan a harder sell.'

  • The Whitehouse website (whitehouse.gov) contains information on President Bush's energy policy.
  • Department of Energy (www.fe.doe.gov) contains information posted by the Department of Energy.
  • The Bush plan calls for increased reliance on coal and, for the first time in two decades, nuclear power. It also calls for more overall production of fossil fuels. Perhaps the plan's most controversial proposal calls for oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

    So far, the plan has evoked a divided - if somewhat predictable - response. To some extent, business favors it. Some business leaders, however, are not convinced of the need.

    'Drilling in Alaska is like a poster child for extremists,' Shannon said. 'Alaska is diverting attention from this plan, which really is one of prudent moderation.'

    Bush's proposals have drawn the ire of environmental groups in Pennsylvania. And some opinion polls suggest that many members of the public think the plan is little more than payback for big business.

    'This is a plan that tries to get people to consume more energy,' said David Hughes, the director of Citizen Power, a utility watchdog group in Pittsburgh.

    Hughes, a longtime environmental advocate, expressed dismay about being denied admission to the Cheney town hall meeting. Tickets for the meeting were distributed by the offices of Gov. Tom Ridge, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Penn Hills, and U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart of Bradford Woods. All the politicians attending the event were Republicans.

    'This is not a town meeting at all - they are rigging admission,' said Hughes, who along with other environmental advocates staged protests of the Cheney visit.

    Until recently, coal and nuclear power have been moribund industries.

    Now, for the first time in more than two decades, Pennsylvania's coal industry is flourishing, said George Ellis, director of the Pennsylvania Coal Association.

    And, Ellis said, 'Coal has to be at the top of the list to solve the country's energy problems.'

    Pennsylvania is the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, and most of the mining takes place in the state's western reaches where the industry employs about 7,500 people. Some 60 percent of the state's electric power is generated by coal-fired plants, which the coal association says is higher than the national average of 52 percent.

    Despite its grimy image, coal is now a clean energy source that pollutes at a fraction of the level it did as recently as the 1970s, Ellis said.

    Coal also is abundant and cheap, a claim that advocates of nuclear power also use to tout their industry.

    PennPIRG, a public interest advocacy group, claims exactly the opposite - not only about nuclear power and coal, but about the entire Bush plan.

    'The Bush plan is dirty, dangerous and does not deliver for consumers,' said Beth McConnell, PennPIRG's clean air and energy advocate.

    Coal is less dirty than it was, said McConnell. 'But it is still dirty.'

    McConnell said that Pennsylvania runs little risk of an acute energy crisis like California's. The Commonwealth is already the country's second-largest exporter of power and faces no prospect of a shortage.

    But she said Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the country, adding, 'This stems from the heavy use of coal power plants.'

    PennPIRG cites several power plants near Pittsburgh - among them the Conemaugh Plant in Indiana County, the Cheswick plant in Allegheny County and the Keystone Power Plant in Armstrong Country - as among the state's dirtiest.

    Instead of emphasizing development of fossil fuel industries, as the Bush plan does, McConnell favors renewable energy projects such as Pennsylvania's two windpower farms in Somerset and Fayette counties.

    Many environmentalists accuse the Bush administration of exaggerating the extent of an energy shortage so that stringent environmental regulations developed over 30 years can be gutted.

    'In fact, there is no energy crisis - the real crisis is an environmental crisis,' said John Hanger, president of environmental group PennFuture and a former member of the state's Public Utility Commission.

    Others, however, deride the environmental movement's emphasis on renewable energy and conservation.

    'Wind and solar power are simply not developed sources of energy,' said Dick Green, a political analyst who worked for former Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

    'The problem with many environmentalists is that they just say no to everything,' he said.

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