WASHINGTON - The limelight that Dick Cheney ducked out of in recent weeks as the White House showcased the President as the man in charge is about to suffuse the Vice President again as the energy-needy nation studies his energy policy.
Even though President Bush this week will present the adminis-
tration's new energy policy, it is Mr. Cheney as chairman of the energy task force whom supporters of the plan will praise and detractors will blame.
The energy policy, which Mr. Cheney has been spelling out in a series of interviews and speeches, calls for more reliance on coal and nuclear power, more drilling for oil and gas in federal lands and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, tax incentives and credits for industry, and far less emphasis on energy conservation than environmentalists want.
Mr. Cheney says there are "no quick fixes" to California's rolling blackouts and higher gas prices at the pump this summer. He warns that refineries and nuclear power plants can't be built overnight.
After eight years of feeling they were being slapped on the knuckles by the Clinton administration, the oil and gas industries think of the plan as great news, second to instant and abundant gushers. Nearly all plan to react favorably when they see the details; they all praise Mr. Cheney's work.
That has become a sore point for the Vice President. The fact that every news story about the energy plan points out that Mr. Cheney was chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton Co. before becoming Vice President and that Mr. Bush started his career in the oil business in Texas makes Mr. Cheney defensive.
"Yes, I do come from the energy industry. So does the President," he says impatiently. The point, he adds, is not that this White House favors the energy industry but that the administration has a lot of experienced people "who know what they're talking about" when it comes to energy.
And that means oil. Because transportation is the lifeblood of the American economy, the administration says, oil is at the center of its energy policy and that is not likely to change.
Mr. Cheney points out he is a defender of coal as "the most plentiful source of affordable energy in the country." Without doubt, he says, it will and should remain the nation's primary source of electricity for years even though it is, he acknowledges, dirty.
Mr. Cheney views his job in the next few weeks as telling those prone to criticize the energy policy he devised to "calm down" and "climb down off the ceiling," as he put it in a recent interview.
Air pollution is decreasing, he argues, and technology will continue to make that happen, even with more coal-fired power plants. The administration wants to spend $2 billion on clean-coal technology.
Besides, he says, Christine Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is there to keep the administration honest. She was all but publicly reprimanded for saying the administration would cap carbon dioxide levels when, in fact, the administration says that is not possible. Now the administration is again extolling her strengths as, in Mr. Cheney's words, "having a good, strong environmental record."
Perhaps no aspect of the Bush energy plan has ignited more hos-
tility in the environmental community than the plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, what Mr. Clinton used to call "one of America's crown jewels."
Mr. Cheney says plans are to drill in only 2,000 acres of the refuge's 19 million acres. The Alaska Wilderness League is outraged. In a fact sheet, it argues that the administration "is actually proposing to lease and drill in the entire 1.5 million-acre (Delaware-sized) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain - the area the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls the `biological heart' of the refuge. The coastal plain is the last five percent of Alaska's vast North Slope that remains off limits to oil exploration or development."
Girding for battle, a coalition of 12 environmental groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Union of Concerned Scientists to the Wilderness Society has put together 20 "fact sheets" arguing with just about every aspect of Mr. Cheney's plan. Mainly, they say there is no energy crisis, simply a need to conserve and make changes.
The groups particularly quarrel with Mr. Cheney's insistence that the nation must build 1,300 power plants, including nuclear plants, over the next 20 years. The coalition says the Department of Energy has studies that indicate that only half that number would be needed if more effort is put into conservation.
Mr. Bush last week backed Mr. Cheney and rejected criticism that his administration is shying away from conservation, telling the Electronic Industries Alliance that "we can't conserve our way to energy independence, folks."
But more than it is worried about environmental groups, a known quantity, the administration is worried that the timing of Mr. Cheney's plan may backfire because of politically nervous Republicans.
With the House narrowly controlled by Republicans, that could be jeopardized if California Republicans lose seats in next year's general elections over the energy issue. As Californians worry about paying $3 a gallon for gasoline and deal with unexpected, even daily blackouts, there is growing anger that Mr. Cheney's plan looks at the long-term energy picture and contains nothing for California's short-term problems. Mr. Cheney is braced for increasing pressure from fellow Republicans to "do something" beyond reducing by 10 percent the Pentagon's energy needs in California.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, says Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are showing courage in resisting pressure in favor of long-term solutions.
Mr. Cheney says he realizes that frustration will mount along with prices and shortages and that his task is to get people to "sit down and listen" to the administration's thoughts on energy.
As for Mr. Cheney, however, he must move on. Now that the energy task force has finished its report, Mr. Bush has ordered Mr. Cheney to head a special group to study the nation's vulnerability to terrorist attacks.