A Year in the Life of Spencer Abraham

When Spencer Abraham toiled as the junior senator from Michigan, he wanted desperately to do away with the Department of Energy, a federal outpost that the Republicans have railed against since its creation under Jimmy Carter. In his six years in the senate, he never missed a chance to vote to abolish the department and to accuse its administrators and employees of an hysterical range of misdeeds, from treason (Wen Ho Lee) to using the banner of environmentalism as a cover for bringing about a new age of solar socialism.

Abraham was trounced in his 2000 senate reelection bid and, rightfully thinking that his prospects for employment in the private sector might be bleak, he faxed his frail resumé (highlighting his stint as part of Dan Quayle’s brain trust) to the Bush transition team–meaning, as in all other matters of import, Dick Cheney. When word came that Bush and Cheney were set to offer Abraham the post as the nation’s energy czar, Abraham reportedly threw something of a tantrum. Apparently, he had his heart set on the slot at the Department of Transportation, where, no doubt, he believed he could do some major league damage for the captains of industry in Detroit and Dallas.

But time heals all wounds. Now that he finds himself in charge of the DoE, Abraham seems to have become entranced by its political utility. The Energy Department, Abraham soon discovered, was not some green bunker plotting the solar conquest of the energy market. No. It was a clearinghouse for the oil and nuke industry, a kind of federally-endowed lobby, which occasionally dispensed token handouts to the energy conservation crowd. In recent years those tokens have gotten smaller and smaller.

Let’s review Abraham’s first year directing the energy policy of Big Oil’s newest favorite administration (recall that the last one wasn’t all that bad for the likes of Arco and Chevron). At the top of the list is the ceaseless maneuvering to break open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to exploration and drilling. The Refuge (only the pro-drilling claque insists on calling it ANWR, which sounds frightfully like an oil company moniker) sits on the arctic tundra in the northeastern corner of Alaska. Long a prize of the oil lobby, the Refuge is the last unsullied swath of coastline in the American arctic, home to polar bear, wolves, caribou, salmon, raptor nesting colonies and the Gwich’in tribe.

Even though by bureaucratic right the Arctic Refuge is part of Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s empire, Spence Abraham made the transfer of the wildlife refuge to the oil industry the top priority on his energy agenda. Upon reflection, it wasn’t a particularly smart move, even if higher-ups like Cheney were telling Abraham to go for it.

But Spence isn’t the brightest bulb in the Bush cabinet. Indeed, during his tenure in the senate Abraham was known by senate staffers–the biggest gossips on the Hill–as being jovial but clueless. One Republican senate staffer told CounterPunch they referred to Abraham as “Senate Lunkhead”–that’s a certain kind of distinction in a chamber populated with the likes of Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback.

Drilling in the Arctic Refuge is a battle that Abraham simply can’t win. And mightier men than he have tried, from James Schlesinger (the first energy secretary under Carter, now a pimp for Big Oil) to the arch-villain himself, James Watt. It’s the third rail of environmental politics, the Death Star for Big Oil’s deepest desires. The Big Green groups are likely to capitulate on everything from the Everglades (witness the recent sell-out by National Aubudon Society on Jeb Bush’s developer-friendly plan) and Superfund to ancient forests and the Endangered Species Act. But they will not relent on the Arctic Refuge. Why? Easy: it’s the biggest fundraiser they’ve ever come across and they’ll fight to the death to keep it. (That also means, of course, that many of these green groups want the Refuge to remain perpetually at risk of development.)

Last week in a desperate attempt to secure enough votes to override a senate filibuster of the bill to open the refuge, Abraham played the Iraq card, alleging that Saddam Hussein’s threat to cut off oil sales to Israel’s allies necessitated opening the refuge to Exxon and Chevron. Of course, Abraham didn’t explain Saddam’s threats would have the slightest impact on US oil supplies, which have maintained an embargo against Iraqi crude since the Gulf War.

Even former CIA head and Iraq hawk James Woolsey didn’t buy that one. “The bottom line is that we’ll be dependent on the Middle East as long as we are dependent on oil,” said Woolsey, who served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995. “Drilling in ANWR is not a recipe for America’s national security. The only answer is to use substantially less petroleum.”

But Abraham wasn’t through. He had a bad hand, but he was determined to play all his cards anyway. The secretary hatched a scheme with Senator Frank Murkowski to lure the votes of Democratic senators by proposing to add a bailout for steelworkers to the energy bill. While the measure may have attracted the attention of some Dems from the steelbelt, it foundered when conservative Republicans condemned it as a boondoggle for big labor. After six years in the senate, you’d have thought that Abraham would have at least learned to check these kinds of vote swaps over with Trent Lott first and not simply take the word of Murkowski, who is deranged on the subject of oil drilling in the Arctic.

Earlier this week Abraham’s department came up with another stupid idea: blame it on the Indians. The DoE launched a despicable attack on the Gwich’in, the Arctic tribe that has opposed drilling in ANWR out of concern for the impacts on fish and wildlife, particularly caribou, that they depend on for sustenance. Abraham dredged up a 20-year old exploration arrangement on the Venetie Reservation outside the small town of Arctic Village, signed off on by some tribal members. The exploration site was not in caribou habitat and proved to be lacking in oil reserves, but Abraham went out of his way to portray the impoverished tribe as a band of duplicitous hypocrites in the press, as if hypocrisy were a moral defect unknown to Big Oil.

For their part, the Gwich’in remain undeterred. The Refuge is a centerpiece of their spiritual cosmology, revered as “the sacred place where life begins.” ”

“We depend on the caribou, as Gwich’in people, for food, clothing, medicine, tools and spirituality,” says Sandra Newman, a council member for the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation. “And in return, the caribou depend on us to take care of the land for them so they can continue to be free.”

[It was all for nothing. On Thursday April 18, the pro-drilling forces fell 14 votes short of invoking cloture. But true to his nature, Abraham vows to fight on.]

At the same time Abraham was bashing the Gwich’in, he was going to bat for the big boys in Detroit, helping to defeat once again new fuel efficiency standards for American automobiles. Under the rosiest scenario, the oil reserves under the Arctic Refuge will yield roughly 3.2 billion barrels. And it would take 10 years for that oil to reach the pump, and even when production peaks — in 2027 — the refuge would produce less than 2 percent of the oil Americans are projected to use. By contrast, Detroit automakers have the technology right now to boost fuel economy standards to at least 40 miles per gallon. By phasing-in that standard by 2012 the nation could save 15 times more oil than the Arctic Refuge is likely to produce over 50 years.

When tougher fuel efficiency standards came up for a vote before the senate in mid-March, Abraham was there to denounce the measure and lobbying senators to defeat the package. He was so persuasive that fourteen Democrats jumped over to his side, including Baucus-MT, Bayh-IN, Breaux-LA, Byrd-WV, Carper-DE, Cleland-GA, Conrad-ND, Dorgan—ND, Feingold-WI, Kohl-WI, Levin-MN, Lincoln-AR, Milkulski-MD, Miller-GA, Nelson-NE, and Stabenow-MI. [Nearly all of these Democrats were certified as good greens by the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club’s political action committee.)

Then there’s Abraham’s cozy relationship with Enron, a bond forged during his senate term that continues to this very day despite the company’s leprous reputation. Even after the Enron scandal blew up, the DoE and the State Department have continued to go to bat for the energy conglomerate, particularly on the issue of the Dabhol natural gas plant in Maharashtra State, India. This monstrosity was neither needed nor wanted by the Indian people, but came about through a combination of bribes and arm-twisting, led by Frank Wisner, Jr (son of the famous CIA official and suicide) who served as Ambassador to India under Clinton and then made a bee-line for Enron’s board. When the plant predictably went under, Enron begin desperately badgering the Indian government to cover its estimated $200 million in loses. Cheney and Abraham were recruited to do the shattered company’s bidding. And they did, even as India was being recruited as a fellow traveler in Bush’s war on terror. To its credit, the Indian government told the Bushies to take a hike.

But the defense of Big Oil is never done, a loss for one is a loss for all. Thus, a couple of weeks ago, the Bush team was still going to bat for Enron, as the State Department and the DOE warned the Indian government once again that its failure to “live up to its contractual agreements” on the Dabhol plant might limit future investments in the nation by US energy firms. A prospect that the Indian people (if not the government) must be greeting with a sigh of relief.

[By the way, just how phoney was Enron? This nugget gives a pretty good idea. It seems that the company ran a mock trading floor in its Houston headquarters, complete with desks, flat-panel computer displays and teleconference rooms. The idea was to fool visitors and prospective investors into believing that Enron traded commodities full-time, in a kind of 24/7 frenzy. In fact, the equipment was only hooked up internally, and the employee-“traders,” who appeared to be frantically placing orders, were merely talking to each other–no doubt about how they could unload the soon-to-be-worthless Enron shares clogging up their 401K plans.]

On the nuclear front there’s Yucca Mountain, the austere stretch of Mojave desert 100 miles north of Las Vegas where the DoE and its masters in the nuclear industry want to dump the radioactive waste that is piling up relentlessly at the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors. During the 2000 campaign, Bush pledged to Nevada voters that he would hold firm against any attempt to make Yucca Mountain the nation’s nuke waste dump.

That promise certainly helped Bush win a tight race in Nevada and (along with the Supreme Court) the White House. But it turns out that Bush was just kidding. Within weeks of taking office, the leaders of the nuclear industry were given free access to the White House and the DOE and quickly went about writing a game plan for seizing Yucca Mountain. Anyone who’d taken the time to look at where the nuke industry’s political money was flowing couldn’t have been surprised at Bush’s political pirouette.

A new report by Public Citizen spells it out pretty clearly. The nuclear industry contributed $82,728 to Abraham during the 2000 election cycle, when he was a U.S. senator, and spent even more money lobbying on issues dear to the industry’s bottom line, including the ill-conceived nuclear waste dump proposal. In 2000 alone, leading nuclear energy interests that helped bankroll Abraham’s unsuccessful Senate campaign spent more than $25 million to hire some of the highest-powered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., including top officials from the Reagan and Clinton administrations, records show. Eight of the lobbying firms hired made Fortune magazine’s recent list of the 20 most influential firms in Washington.

But the nuke industry didn’t stop there. They also spent more than $25 million lobbying congress and federal agencies on the matter-that’s about a half-million a week, every week of the year. The nuclear industry flooded Washington with a strike force of lobbyists, totalling more 53 different lobbying firms, for a combined total of 199 individual lobbyists. This doesn’t include the in-house lobbyists working for utilities and other nuclear industries.

And these were no run-of-the-mill K-Street lobbyists. Nearly half of the lobbyists hired by Abraham’s top nuclear contributors previously worked for the federal government. The roster includes seven former members of Congress; former acting Energy Secretary Elizabeth Moler, who also was former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Gregory Simon, the chief domestic advisor to former Vice President Al Gore; Haley Barbour, political affairs director in the Reagan White House and former chair of the Republican National Committee; and James Curtiss, who served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

These people can work political magic. For example, only last week, Abraham and Homeland Security head Tom Ridge came to the remarkable conclusion that shipping high-level nuclear waste across the nation by rail and truck presents no special terrorism risk. No wonder Ridge doesn’t want to answer any questions during his appearances before congressional committees.

Of course, Ridge does have a point. Terrorism probably isn’t the biggest concern when it comes to hauling all that radioactive waste across country. It’s much more likely that an American city will be nuked by accident when one of the atomic trains derails and spills its lethal cargo into rivers and neighborhoods and onto streets. In fact, it’s damn near a statistical certainty.

Remember, as my friend David Vest points out, this scheme to ship nuclear waste by rail from every corner of the country to the Nevada outback is being hawked by many of the same people who threw a fit over busing kids a few blocks to improve educational opportunities for urban students. And, by and large, they are the same cadre of politicians who want to pull the plug on Amtrak as a burdensome federal subsidy.

Then there’s the Bush/Abraham/Cheney energy plan, the creation of which has been the subject of brutal litigation between the White House, the General Accounting Office and environmental groups. Two recently released documents give an idea of how closely the Bush energy plan followed the industry’s script:

A March 20, 2001 email from the American Petroleum Institute to an Energy Department official provided a draft Executive Order on energy. Two months later, President Bush issued Executive Order 13211, which is nearly identical in structure and impact to the API draft, and nearly verbatim in a key section.

In March 2001, a Southern Company lobbyist emailed a DOE official suggesting “another issue” for inclusion in the energy plan: so-called reform of the Clean Air Act and related enforcement actions. The suggestion was incorporated into the energy plan, launching the Administration’s controversial effort to weaken the Clean Air Act and retreat from high-profile enforcement actions against the nation’s largest polluters, including the Southern Company.

While Abraham, Cheney and the other Bush bigwigs huddled repeatedly over a period of months with the energy elite, environmentalists were largely locked out. Abraham himself met with more than 100 representatives from the energy industry and trade associations from late January to May 17, 2001, when the task force released its report. But when enviros, lead by the corporate-friendly Environmental Defense Fund, asked for a meeting with Abraham, his scheduler, Kathy Holloway, stiff-armed them, saying that Abraham was too busy for a face-to-face.

One of the DOE documents released by order of a federal court on April 10, 2002, shows that the Energy task force gave one of its staff members 48 hours to contact 11 environmental groups to obtain their policy recommendations. The environmental groups were given 24 hours to provide written comments. Another DOE memo notes that staffers should endeavor to closely scrutinize the green’s comments and “recommend some we might like to support that are consistent with the Administration energy statements to date.”

There was a final blow. In order to print up the oil/nuke energy plan, Abraham chose not to waste a cent from his multi-billion dollar drilling budget. Instead, he plundered $135,615 from the DOE’s mothballed solar, renewables and energy conservation budget to produce 10,000 copies of the White House energy plan released last May. The solar funds were even raided to pay for the Administration’s energy lobbyist Andrew Lundquist’s air ticket to Alaska to strategize on drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

But Abraham’s going to have to find a new printing account next year, because those funds probably won’t be around much longer. The energy plan that the solar funds financed the printing of calls for slashing the renewable energy program by more than 50 percent.

Maybe old Spence has a sense of irony after all.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3