Abraham Departs DOE, Leaves Muddled Legacy

By Published On: November 20, 2004

Having tendered his resignation to President George Bush, outgoing Department of Energy head Spencer Abraham has to figure out what he?s going to do next?but the impact of his work over the past four years appears clouded as well. Abraham defended coal and nuclear power yet also oversaw boosts in fuel-efficiency efforts and increased production tax credits for alternative energy. Many in the industry, however, regard the secretary as a lightweight beholden to Vice-President Dick Cheney and his secretive policy machinations. ?He didn?t leave much of a footprint,? said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. ?Not much got done at a time when the oil and gas markets are in turmoil.? In his November 14 letter of resignation to Bush, Abraham touted nuclear power as a viable long-term energy source and glowed over the administration?s ?FutureGen? program, a planned $1 billion initiative aimed at creating a ?near-zero emission? clean-coal plant. Its goal is to produce technology that would allow carbon dioxide produced by a 250 MW coal unit to be sequestered underground. Abraham stressed the importance of coal and its continuing prominence in the U.S. energy landscape during a speech he gave November 10 to the National Coal Council. ?Far from being the environmental villain that critics would have us believe, coal is indeed America?s most important strategic energy resource,? he said. Renewables advocates point out that coal can be both?villain as well as vital. While trapping carbon dioxide underground may or may not prove viable (<i>Circuit</i>, November 12, 2004), another method being studied could turn the greenhouse gas into emission-free carbonate rock. Some note that while the prospect of clean-coal/gasification plants is drawing interest, some 100 pulverized-coal facilities remain in various stages of proposal around the country, rendering ?clean? projects a small potential bright spot overshadowed by conventional, pollutant-heavy coal generation. Green power representatives agree that extending production tax credits for renewable resources reflects positively on Abraham?s tenure. The federal incentives, approximately 1.5 cents/kWh, lapsed at the end of last year but were continued through 2005 via the tax package approved earlier this year in HR 1308. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the move keeps on track $3 billion in wind projects around the U.S. In addition, fuel sources such as biomass, solar, and geothermal energy are now eligible for credits with the passage of HR 4520 last month. Abraham?s focus on energy efficiency and the potential use of hydrogen power did not sit well with his masters, said John Coequyt, Greenpeace energy policy specialist. ?[Abraham] did some positive things to save natural gas through increasing efficiency, which was not viewed favorably? by the Bush administration, he said. The Nuclear Energy Institute praised the secretary for his ?invaluable? work in securing Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a repository for long-term radioactive waste storage. Abraham, said the institute, advocated for nuclear power ?more than any energy secretary in recent administrations.? But this stance appeared to contradict Abraham?s efforts to quell the buildup of nuclear materials outside the U.S. ?There seems to have been a disconnect. He didn?t push nonproliferation in this country,? said Michele Boyd, Public Citizen legislative director for energy. Paul Gunter, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service?s (NIRS) reactor watchdog project, painted Abraham?s role in starker colors. ?Frankly, the nuclear industry couldn?t have found a more solid and biased friend than the current secretary,? he said. By acting to champion nuclear energy, Abraham helped steer a ?return to the largest managerial disaster in business history,? Gunter claimed. Meanwhile, American nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to possible terrorist attack, he continued. Two petitions now before nuclear regulators seek to close this alleged breach. Reports of who will succeed Abraham at the Department of Energy include an assortment of candidates, including:<ul><li>Kyle McSlarrow, deputy energy secretary and reputed to be well versed on nuclear security and nonproliferation.</li> <li>Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute and a key fund-raiser for Bush?s reelection campaign.</li> <li>John Breaux, a retiring U.S. senator (D-Louisiana) said to have strong ties to the oil and natural gas industry.</li> <li>Representative Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), who sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.</li></ul>The consensus view appears to be that the president will choose a person with greater policy-making strength, perhaps someone who can lead a renewed drive toward national energy legislation. Whether Abraham?s successor will stake out an independent path is open to speculation, though Gunter and others find it unlikely. ?Why not just put Cheney in charge and cut out the middleman?? Gunter asked. As for Abraham?s next steps, some speculate that he will become a lobbyist for the auto industry. During his one-term stint representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate, Abraham raked in $722,950 from auto manufacturers, according to the Washington, D.C.?based nonprofit research outfit Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). He lost his reelection bid in 2000 before being picked to lead the Department of Energy. Abraham also took in $304,793 from oil and gas industry players, according to the CRP. The secretary will continue to serve until his successor is named. <i>Elizabeth McCarthy also contributed to this report.</i>

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