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THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Energy Secretary Calls for U.S. Policy Overhaul

Power: Administration official says OPEC's cuts in crude oil output underscore the need for America to increase its production.

March 26, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Warning again of possible blackouts in California, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham appealed Sunday for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. energy policies to ward off problems that could plague the state and the nation for decades.

"It can't be solved overnight," he said. "But if we don't start taking actions now to open up more potential for domestic production, to begin conserving where we can do a better job of energy efficiency, then the problems are only going to get worse over the next 20 years."

Abraham made his remarks in a Fox News interview in which he said that California's energy supply problems arose from the fact that the state for years did not build enough power plants to quench its growing economy's thirst for electricity.

"As we confront the summer, we're looking at the potential for rolling blackouts in California."

California was shaken last week by the first deliberate statewide interruptions of energy service since World War II, and government officials have made no guarantees that they would be the last, particularly as summer temperatures boost demand for electricity.

Abraham declined to predict whether Californians were going to face higher energy prices. He noted that the state's retail rate freeze had "insulated" residents from wholesale price hikes and that future policies would be set in the state.

Abraham contended that recent cuts in crude oil output by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries underscored the need for America to increase its production.

Asked whether President Bush had personally lobbied the heads of oil-exporting nations to refrain from cutting supplies, Abraham said he did not know. He added: "What I do know is this: We are not going to take the approach of begging the OPEC countries or anybody else with respect to oil production."

Rather, he maintained, America needs to diversify its sources of energy, "so we don't have to be so dependent on the rest of the world."

As an example, Abraham pointed to the administration's aim of developing oil and natural gas inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, terming it "a huge infusion of new energy sources that would give us the ability to be more energy independent."

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the refuge contains 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of usable reserves, which energy officials previously have estimated might meet the nation's needs for about six months.

Critics, however, have argued that the White House is seizing on recent energy problems in California and elsewhere to justify an agenda of oil exploration, at the expense of the environment.

Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) maintained Sunday that other approaches, such as improved energy efficiency, conservation and alternative fuels, deserved greater attention from the White House.

"Even if you were to open up the Arctic refuge, you will do nothing to reduce the cost of oil to Americans," Kerry argued. "You will do nothing to reduce the dependency on foreign oil."

But Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) argued that the administration was right to push to develop areas such as the Arctic refuge. Today's technology allows for safe exploration of the refuge, he maintained, adding that America's national security needs were another reason for such production.

"Do we want to fight another war over oil?" Murkowski asked. "We fought one once. How quickly we forget."

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