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Republicans Tell a Tale of Two Energy Scandals

November 3, 2011

On Thursday, Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to subpoena all White House documents related to the lost $535 federal loan to the failed solar company Solyndra. But just one day earlier, the GOP majority on the House Natural Resources Committee blocked Democratic efforts to subpoena the CEOs of BP and the other firms involved in last year's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Of course, on that point Republicans have been nothing if not consistent. From the beginning, they helped keep Dick Cheney's secret energy task force secret and with it, the meetings that loosened drilling regulations and delivered billions in taxpayer subsidies to the industry.
A frustrated Ed Markey (D-MA) pointed out the irony in Wednesday's 17-13 party line vote:

"Within a twenty four hour period, Republicans will vote to protect oil CEOs from testifying on a multi-billion dollar disaster where 11 men died, and then turn around and attack the White House and clean energy with politically-motivated onslaughts using the same subpoena power they scorned using against the oil industry."

In seeking President Obama's Blackberry messages and other documents related to Solyndra, House Republicans have rejected White House claims that their demand "implicates long-standing and significant institutional Executive Branch confidentiality interests." So long-standing, it turns out, that House Republicans honored them when Dick Cheney spoke of the "zone of autonomy" and "the constitutional right of the president and vice president to obtain information in confidentiality."
When House Democrats pushed a resolution in September 2004 "seeking the names of individuals who worked behind closed doors with Vice President Cheney's energy task force to craft the Bush administration's national energy policy," it was blocked by all 30 Republican members of the House Energy and Committee. Among the obstructionists were GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Cliff Stearns (R-TX), two of the Republicans' grand inquisitors in the Solyndra affair. As a September 16, 2004 press release from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recalled:

A verbal scuffle erupted in Congress yesterday when Republicans on a House committee blocked a Democratic attempt to shed light on the workings of a secretive energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. On a party line vote, the House Energy & Commerce Committee voted to kill a resolution of inquiry seeking the names of individuals who worked behind closed doors with Vice President Cheney's energy task force to craft the Bush administration's national energy policy.
All 30 Republican members at the committee hearing voted against the resolution while all 22 Democratic members voiced support for the inquiry. The hearing overheated -- degenerating into what one member called a "political circus" -- after Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) refused even to allow debate on the issue. Democrats shouted, "Shame!" and some even walked out in protest.

As NRDC's Karen Wayland lamented at the time, "It shouldn't take an act of Congress to force the White House to share information with the public about the public's business."
And as Mother Jones documented in June 2010, that business not only included a massive tax break windfall for the energy companies, but regulatory changes that may have made the Deepwater Horizon blow-out possible:

Many of the recommendations from the task force report were adopted in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. That legislation provided $6 billion in subsidies for oil and gas development. Royalty payments for oil and gas development were waived in several regions of the US. Some companies were allowed to pay royalties with oil, rather than money--a less transparent system that was more vulnerable to abuse. The bill also provided $1.5 billion in direct payments to companies to incentivize drilling in deepwater wells, and curtailed the power of states to oversee oil and gas exploration off their coasts under the Coastal Zone Management Act.
In addition, the bill weakened environmental protections for offshore drilling, making it easier to exclude a broad range of exploration and drilling activities from analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. This has been cited as the reason that the Deepwater Horizon site was not subjected to a thorough environmental analysis.

While the Cheney energy task force final report claimed that newer oil and gas drilling methods "practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms" and "enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources":

Among the many questions is what role the task force may have played in a 2003 decision by the MMS not to require offshore rigs to install an acoustic shut-off switch, a remote-controlled backup system that seals off an underwater well even if the rig above is destroyed. Countries like Norway and Brazil require this precaution, and MMS considered doing the same. But oil companies complained that the $500,000 devices were too expensive and, they argued, ineffective. Ultimately, MMS made the switches optional. The Deepwater Horizon was not outfitted with such a device, which could have prevented the spill.

As Mojo's Kate Shepherd concluded, "But there's a lot we still don't know." That's due in great part to obstructionist Republicans in Congress, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court of the United States.
As it turned out, in 2001 Dick Cheney and his secret energy task force held dozens of meetings with 300 groups and individuals in formulating Bush administration policy. Among them was Enron CEO and Bush "Pioneer" Ken Lay. BP officials were among those who "gave detailed energy policy recommendations" to the administration, as were representatives of Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute. (As Paul Krugman noted in speculating about the group's role in altering "new source review" and other policies, "the day after the executive director of Mr. Cheney's task force left the government, he went into business as an energy industry lobbyist.") Nevertheless, the Bush administration fought requests by the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch for information about the participants under the Federal Advisory Committee Act all the way to the Supreme Court.
Despite the precedent of a federal appeals court concluding that non-governmental participants in the1993 Clinton health care group constituted "de facto members," the Supreme Court sided with Cheney and his Republican protectors. By a 7-2 margin, the Court found, in Justice Anthony Kennedy's words, that "A president's communications and activities encompass a vastly wider range of sensitive material than would be true of any ordinary individual."
For his part, Dick Cheney claimed in 2007 that the Bush White House was "very responsible" in supplying information to lawmakers, but that "sometimes requests have been made that clearly fall outside the boundaries." And as he made clear again in his memoirs, his secret energy task force was one of those cases:

"We had the right to consult with whomever we chose -- and no obligation to tell the press or Congress or anybody else whom we were talking to. .... I believed something larger was at stake: the power of the presidency and the ability of the president and vice president to carry out their constitutional duties." When they won the fight, he says, "it was a major victory both for us and for the power of the executive branch."

Unless, Cheney's allies now insist, that executive branch is headed by a Democrat.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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