New York Times




White House Asks Unions to Meet on Energy Policy



May 10, 2001


WASHINGTON. In an effort to generate support from organized labor for its new energy policy, the Bush administration, has invited officers of about a dozen unions to the White House next Monday for a confidential preview of the policy.


The administration had made few successful overtures to labor, but it is seeking ‹ and expects to win ‹ union support for its energy plans, which will call for extensive new oil and gas drilling, the laying of pipelines and the construction of power plants. All of that could translate into thousands of union jobs.


"They're going to look for support for their energy policy wherever they can," said a Republican strategist familiar with the administration's carefully orchestrated efforts to sell the policy. "And they're finding an unlikely bedfellow in labor, which would be a huge beneficiary from drilling and from building plants."


The administration's courtship of organized labor could drive a wedge between unions and environmental advocacy groups, which complain that the administration has made little effort to work with them. Andrew D. Lundquist, who directed Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, invited environmental organizations to a meeting, but the groups said he did not solicit substantive recommendations.


The Teamsters and Laborers International unions ‹ which will be represented at Monday's meeting with Mr. Cheney and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao ‹ have already come out in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


"We view this as a jobs opportunity," said Mike Mathis, the government affairs director for the Teamsters International, who will accompany the union's president, James P. Hoffa, to the meeting.


Union workers and environmentalists have been allied on trade issues and overwhelmingly supported Vice President Al Gore's presidential candidacy last year. None of the unions invited to the White House on Monday endorsed President Bush.


The courtship of labor also comes as President Bush prepares to press his bid to win authority from Congress to negotiate new trade deals with Latin America and countries around the globe. The intensity of organized labor's efforts to oppose that bid ‹ as it did when President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully sought such authority‹ could prove decisive.


Environmental groups are already criticizing the energy plan as increasing pollution and giving to the energy interests that contributed to Mr. Bush's presidential campaign.


The environmental groups will coordinate an assault on the plan next week when it is released, with local demonstrations and lobbying efforts to steer Congress toward a strategy based on efficiency, conservation and renewable resources, leaders of several organizations said today.


The groups are also considering a television advertising campaign, based in part on polling by Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who has advised the organizations on how to pitch their argument.


Mr. Mellman said his research shows that people overwhelmingly believe that energy problems in California and nationwide are not the result of underlying shortages but of corporate profiteering.


"There is a very strong belief that George Bush and this administration represent the interests of big business, including the oil companies and utilities, exactly the people who seem to be manufacturing this crisis for their own benefit," Mr. Mellman said.


At a news conference today, representatives of several environmental groups questioned virtually every assumption of the Bush energy plan. For example, they challenged the idea that the nation was in an energy crisis, saying that was an argument intended to spur Congress to roll back environmental laws and increase the profits of oil, gas, coal and nuclear power companies.


Dave Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, "The reason that this Bush energy plan emphasizes production is not because the private sector needs help in increasing production, it's that they need the Bush government's help in overturning environmental, health and safety laws."


A memorandum Mr. Mellman prepared for the Sierra Club says that voters oppose all of the energy proposals offered by the administration. His polling shows, for example, that 69 percent of voters oppose relaxing clean air standards and 68 percent oppose drilling for oil in national monuments. The proposal with the least opposition, 48 percent, was building more nuclear power plants.


Monday's meeting is part of a larger campaign by the White House to lay the groundwork for its energy initiatives, a campaign that has included months of research into how best to frame and talk about the plan to make Americans comfortable. The energy-related polling and focus groups conducted by the Republican National Committee have been more extensive than on any issue other than the economy, party officials said.


Administration officials confirmed Monday's meeting with union officials but would not provide details.


But union and political officials familiar with the discussions about the meeting said representatives from about a dozen unions, chosen because they would likely benefit from drilling and construction projects, had been invited and more than half would probably attend. In addition to the Teamsters and Laborers, the unions invited include the Carpenters, Iron Workers and Operating Engineers.


Representatives from several of those unions said they did not see this as the beginning of a newly cozy relationship between the administration and organized labor but as a finite area of shared interest.


Zack Matus, a spokesman for the laborers union, said that despite the potential benefits to organized labor from the energy policy, the Bush administration's attitude toward unions had been "neglect, and it's nowhere close to benign neglect."


Mr. Matus was referring to executive orders and rules issued by the administration that overturned worker protections put in place by Mr. Clinton or that made it easier for federal jobs to go to nonunion crews.


The White House has had at least two other sessions to build support for the energy plan. Administration officials recently met with representatives of the nuclear power industry, and at a meeting about 10 days ago, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with representatives from the coal mining industry and politicians from regions that depend economically on coal production.

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