|"Cheney's Energy Success|
By Nash Keune
April 12, 2012 4:00 A.M.
It's hard to remember — after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Blackwater, etc., took turns dominating our collective consciousness — but the Cheney Energy Task Force was once among the gravest of the Bush administration's sins. Created in the second week of Bush's first term, it was seen as the birth of the Bush-Cheney hyper-secretive neo-conservative crypto-fascist military-industrial crime syndicate.
Now, Obama frequently brags that under his administration, domestic oil production has hit an eight-year high. As he also points out, however, the president can't have a significant, instantaneous effect on the energy supply. Indeed, we are currently enjoying this surge of oil production largely because of improvements to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which has increased the oil produced on state and private land. Much of the credit should go to technological innovators and the oilmen who've adopted their techniques. But some credit should be reserved for the Cheney Energy Task Force, which established the guidelines for the Bush administration's response to these developments.
The Cheney Energy Task Force (proper name: National Energy Policy Development Group) consisted of the vice president; the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the secretaries of state, the Treasury, the interior, agriculture, commerce, transportation, and energy; and others. Their mission was simply to develop "a national energy policy designed to help bring together business, government, local communities and citizens to promote dependable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy for the future." After meeting with about 300 groups and individuals, including representatives from the energy industry and environmental activists, the Task Force published its 169-page National Energy Policy report in the spring of 2001.
When the report came out, much of the controversy centered on the participants in the Task Force's meetings. The group never published its record, so Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, suspecting that the group met mostly with Big Oil executives, sued to make them public. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled "prematurely," and sent the case back to the lower court. After reevaluating the case, the appeals court found that the Task Force was excepted from the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which stipulates that federal committees must do their work in public, except when the group is composed entirely of unelected officials, finally concluding in May of 2005 that the records could remain unpublished. On cue, Paul Krugman accused the administration of following "a doctrine that makes the United States a sort of elected dictatorship: a system in which the president, once in office, can do whatever he likes, and isn't obliged to consult or inform either Congress or the public."
Now that Bush's elected dictatorship has ended, the National Energy Policy report remains of interest because of the more lasting effects of its policy recommendations. Unsurprisingly for a government document dealing with such a large topic, many of the suggestions in the report were only vague recommendations that the administration "encourage progress." But other passages in the report did inspire policies that contributed to the recent domestic fuel surge.
Fracking has been used since the 1940s, but it wasn't very widely used at the time of the Task Force's report. It wasn't until 2002 that the modern fracking technique was perfected in the Bennett Formation in Texas. Suddenly decades' worth of energy became available. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Marcellus Formation in the Northeast held 1.9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. By 2009, the EPA was estimating that the formation might yield 262 trillion cubic feet, equal to approximately ten years of U.S. consumption at current rates. Fracking can also be used to access crude oil; the Bakken formation in North Dakota saw a 250 percent increase in production over the last ten years. By 2010, Bakken was producing more oil than it could ship out (a glut that, by the way, would be eased by the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline).
Though the Task Force's report did single out fracking as "one of the fastest growing sources of oil production," there was no way for the members of the group to know that fracking would take off so soon or so intensely, eventually accounting for a third of our domestic oil-and-gas production. The Task Force merely declared that "we should reconsider any regulatory restrictions that do not take technological advances into account."
This is a weak statement, to be sure, but in it one can see the first sign of the administration's welcoming stance toward fracking. This inclination became policy with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to exclude fracking from special EPA oversight and specified that the chemicals used in the process were not to be labeled as pollutants under the Clean Water Act.
These provisions, reportedly inserted at Cheney's behest, have been dubbed the "Halliburton Loophole." While there's no way to tell what would have happened without them, at the very least they kept the EPA from adding a layer of regulatory morass over existing state regulations. Most drilling operations have historically been regulated by the states. In this case, states like Texas and Pennsylvania (much of which is situated on the Marcellus Shale) already have detailed and successful regulatory schemes. As NR's Kevin D. Williamson recently wrote, "facts on the ground are facts literally in the ground," so it's best to keep regulation local.
In the throes of the fracking-driven supply shock, America's often-insufficient transmission infrastructure and always-Byzantine permitting process became apparent. The Task Force report predicted that we would require 38,000 miles of new pipelines to keep up with the supply of natural gas, and given the spike in natural-gas production caused by fracking, this estimate was probably low. But pipelines that do not cross international borders are overseen by the states, which took to this task readily, approving, for example, the 2,000-mile initial phase of the Keystone pipeline.
The administration had more authority over the drilling permitting process, which goes through the federal Bureau of Land Management. After the Task Force recommended that "the President issue an Executive Order to rationalize permitting for energy production in an environmentally sound manner by directing federal agencies to expedite permits and other federal actions necessary for energy-related project approvals on a national basis," the president did so in May 2001. Under Bush, the BLM expedited the permit process by, for example, grouping applications together and then conducting impact surveys for entire fields, rather than performing a separate survey for every well. By 2003, the Associated Press was already reporting that the Bush administration was processing permits 34 percent faster than the Clinton administration had.
Fortunately, the Obama administration has been following in the Bush administration's footsteps to a degree. So far, the EPA has continued to leave fracking to state regulators. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced plans to introduce a new automated permit process, which could cut weeks off of the application schedule. If the president maintains these commitments, and perhaps evolves on the issue of international pipelines, then in a few years maybe he will be able to claim he facilitated record-high oil production.
— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center."