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Bush Gets Union Allies in Arctic Drilling Drive

Energy: President renews his push for controversial legislation, calling it a 'jobs bill.' Five trades back policy.

January 18, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush launched a renewed pitch Thursday for legislation that would open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, presenting the plan as a potentially rich source of jobs and winning the embrace of five major unions.

Reflecting an administration effort to heighten support for its controversial energy policy, Bush journeyed to the Washington headquarters of the Teamsters union at the base of Capitol Hill, rather than asking the union leaders to visit him.

The debate over the Bush energy plan goes to the heart of arguments about how to balance environmental protection with economic development. But the issue now is joined by the political questions surrounding the collapse of the giant energy company Enron. Critics say Enron officials played a large--and inappropriate--role in shaping the White House energy policy, unveiled in May. The White House has denied that charge.

With his visit to the Teamsters, Bush sought to focus attention on his energy measure, which is pending in Congress. The Teamsters have long been a politically maverick union, courted by both Democrats and Republicans and, unlike most unions, freely switching allegiance. The Teamsters also have been one of the most vocal unions in backing the proposal to drill in Alaska, touting it as a source of jobs for its members.

Bush, in brief public remarks, tailored his message accordingly. "This energy bill that we're working on is a jobs bill," he said.

He also said exploring for energy sources in the Alaskan refuge would make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of crude oil, an argument the administration hopes will carry more clout following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It will be good for our foreign policy, good for our national security, and more importantly, it will be good for jobs," the president said.

In the past, the Teamsters have claimed that the administration's drilling plan would create 700,000 jobs as the impact of the exploration rippled through the economy. On Thursday, neither Bush nor Teamsters President James P. Hoffa used any specific figures for job creation.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups opposing the development, disputes the jobs argument. It said that one study, by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, put the number at 46,000 and asserted that many would not last more than 10 years.

The legislation Bush is pushing was approved by the House last year but stalled in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has promised he will schedule a debate on the bill by mid-February.

A political climate that had once appeared to favor the president, when energy prices were climbing and California was struggling through brownouts, has shifted. Energy prices have fallen, and the industry has come under scrutiny in the wake of Enron's difficulties.

For the short trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Teamsters' headquarters, Bush was joined by his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and his top two political advisors, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.

Bush and Hoffa had little trouble enlisting support for the legislation among other union leaders at the meeting. Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, said his union members were "hunters and fishermen and campers who feel strongly about preserving our environment."

Unions representing seafarers, service employees and the building trades also were at the meeting.

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