Battle erupts over energy conservation


WASHINGTON -- White House aides led by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu have told Energy Secretary James D. Watkins to remove energy conservation measures from his proposed National Energy Strategy, endangering President Bush's long-promised program to guide the United States toward energy independence.

In response to the battle erupting in the administration's highest councils, environmentalists and a key Democratic senator agreed Friday that Mr. Bush's energy program would be "dead on arrival" next month on Capitol Hill unless it contained conservation proposals.

At a stormy White House session Wednesday, Mr. Bush's top economic aides threatened to freeze the entire National Energy Strategy, which Mr. Watkins has spent 18 months preparing, until the energy-conservation proposals are dropped, an official who was present said Friday. After speaking with principals in attendance, other sources also verified what happened.

Proposals to stiffen auto fuel-efficiency standards and to increase use of non-gasoline fuels drew particularly heavy fire from Mr. Sununu, chief economic adviser Michael J. Boskin and Budget Director Richard G. Darman.

Those three top Bush aides also attacked virtually all of Mr. Watkins' proposals to encourage energy conservation -- such as higher fuel taxes and tough energy efficiency standards for appliances -- which they denounced as unacceptable government interference with free markets.

By contrast, the aides praised Mr. Watkins' suggestions to use government powers to spur increased production of fuels, especially a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

"This kind of head-in-the-sand attitude toward energy conservation is one of the reasons we now have American men and women stuck inthe sand in Saudi Arabia," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Energy subcommittee on conservation.

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