Industry expertise crucial to energy policy-making

Bob Tippee

Among disclosures in an August General Accounting Office report on the making of Bush administration energy policy, meetings between federal officials and representatives of the energy industry should be the least controversial.

Yet those meetings and Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney's limited cooperation with the GAO are what made news.

"The White House collaborated heavily with corporations" to develop the energy policy, begins an Aug. 26 Washington Post story on the GAO report.

The New York Times waited until the second paragraph of its story to note that the GAO report "officially confirms news reports and expands on them in saying the panel received advice from 'a variety of federal energy stakeholders,' with 'industry leaders submitting detailed policy recommendations.'"

According to a shopworn guide to news judgment, "Dog Bites Man" isn't news, but "Man Bites Dog" is.

Is there really a canine bearing teeth marks in consultations by energy policy-makers with energy experts, who tend to congregate in energy corporations?

It takes extreme cynicism to consider such counsel inappropriate.

Alas, political analysis sometimes focuses not on how much people know about a subject but on how much they contributed to this or that political campaign in the last election cycle.

Many of the energy companies consulted by Cheney's energy- policy design group probably contribute to Republican causes.

But so what? Doing so doesn't expunge their knowledge and experience. Effectiveness of energy policy depends on what they know. The political process should filter expertise out of commercial interest, not ignore it because commercial interest exists.

Cheney's stonewalling hasn't advanced the cause of informed regulation. The vice-president makes a good argument: that the executive branch must be able to deliberate difficult questions without having to tell Congress everything.

But the principle could have yielded in this case without usurping the Constitution. Congress never asked for much information about the energy group.

Now secrecy makes it easy for opponents of the energy policy to make the group's work look suspicious. And input from energy experts looks tainted¿a serious blow to the nation's ability to deal effectively with energy issues.

(Author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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