Oil and the Bush Administration
by Mark J. Palmer
Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2002
Last year, Vice President Dick Cheney hosted a series of meetings
with a group of energy industry representatives and lobbyists.
From these meetings, the Bush administration unveiled a controversial
National Energy Plan, which consisted chiefly of $33 billion in
public subsidies and tax cuts for the oil, coal, and nuclear power
industries, as well as provisions to open up the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge for industrial oil drilling.
For months, Vice President Cheney refused to release the names
of participants, citing presidential privilege to conduct consultations
in private. However, Congress's non-partisan investigative and
oversight arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), filed an unprecedented
lawsuit to obtain the names of the industrialists who met with
the Bush Administration to shape his National Energy Plan. Environmentalists
filed suit as well. The names of the industry experts are finally,
if slowly, being released, revealing that the administration had
given environmental groups only three days to provide input in
writing, while meeting in person with the energy lobby time after
One participant was grudgingly revealed by Cheney early on:
Former Enron CEO and George W Bush's most generous campaign contributor,
Kenneth Lay Cheney admitted that he and/or his staff met at least
six times with Lay on energy policy issues. Congressmember Henry
Waxman (D-CA) subsequently identified 17 different provisions
of the Bush National Energy Plan bill that would have benefited
Enron. At least one Executive Order on energy policy was virtually
identical to draft proposals submitted by the American Petroleum
Despite the strong backing of the Bush administration, the
energy policy only survives on legislative life-support. Though
the House passed the bill, the Senate stripped provisions from
its version, including plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge (ANWR). Now, a contentious Conference Committee must try
to make sense out of the hash of two quite different House and
Senate versions of the bill. Environmentalists support neither
The energy debate in Congress started out in 2001 as one of
supply and cost. But after the tragic events of September 11,
a different note crept into the arguments of Bush supporters.
"Every day the United States imports 700,000 barrels
of oil from [Iraq's] Saddam Hussein... It's time to start producing
that energy in the United States," said Bush's Interior Secretary,
Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK), long a supporter of opening
up ANWR for drilling, stated: "This September, we were brutally
and viciously attacked. Yet government figures show we imported
1.2 million barrels of oil from Iraq every day in September, the
most since 1990. I hope the tragic irony of this is not lost on
[Senate Majority Leader] Daschle. However, his announcement yesterday
that he doesn't want to move energy legislation this year leads
me to believe otherwise."
But are people who oppose drilling in wilderness areas really
at fault for the weaknesses of the US oil-dependent economy and
US policy in the Middle East?
US Oil Drilling vs. Imports
The US uses (many would say squanders) 25 percent of global
oil production, but has only three percent of the world's known
Ironically, due to the high price of extracting oil from Alaska
and other domestic sources, many oil companies are scaling back
domestic production, even as they push Congress to open up the
Arctic Refuge. BP announced in January that it was abandoning
its Liberty offshore oil prospect in Alaska, cutting 120 jobs
and saving an estimated $600 million in costs required to develop
that offshore area. BP told the Financial Times that "the
Liberty project was too expensive to develop."
A minimum eight to ten years of exploration and development
will be required before one drop of oil can reach the US market
from the Arctic Refuge.
According to Tim Burnhill in New Scientist, there have been
seven different estimates of the amount of oil in ANWR over the
past 15 years, the best being that by the US Geological Survey
(USGS) in 1998, of 4.3 to 11.8 billion recoverable barrels of
oil. But even the "best" estimate is little more than
a guess, Burnhill adds, and the higher estimated numbers for recoverable
oil depend on oil prices skyrocketing so that expensive Alaskan
crude would be competitive. Based on the USGS report, the environmental
Alaska Coalition calculates the realistic mean amount of economically
recoverable oil at 3.2 billion barrels in the Arctic Refuge, less
than a six-month supply at current consumption rates.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, notes
in Business Week that the Refuge at best would yield only two
percent of annual US oil consumption during peak operations in
Could the Arctic Refuge be opened only to exploratory drilling
just to determine how much oil the refuge might carry? Under current
law, the answer is no. The US government has no capacity for exploratory
oil drilling. Oil exploration and development are tied inextricably
to leases for private oil companies, which regard exploratory
data as proprietary information.
Crude from the Middle East
Does oil from the Middle East "threaten" US security?
Possibly, although that threat is definitely exaggerated.
According to the US Department of Energy (DOE) and other sources,
the US imported about 13 percent of its domestic consumption of
oil from the Middle East in 2000, most of it (about eight percent
of total US consumption) from oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Only 3.18
percent of total US consumption was imported from Iraq, under
an international agreement limiting Iraq's use of the oil profits
to humanitarian food supplies. The US is a voluntary participant
in this program sponsored by the United Nations. The very people
in the Bush administration and Congress who point to the oil fields
of Iraq with such consternation could have shut those imports
down any time.
The US actually imports less oil today from the Middle East-about
2.4 million barrels a day-than it did in 1977, when we brought
in 3.6 million barrels a day Today, the US imports oil from 60
different countries around the world, according to the DOE.
Further reductions in oil use in the US, through improved
conservation standards (especially with improved gasoline mileage
requirements for cars, SUVs, and light trucks), would reduce the
need for foreign sources of oil much more quickly and reliably
than drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Such conservation efforts
can also buy time for development of cost-effective renewable
energy sources. Just to cite one example: The Environmental Protection
Agency calculates that increasing fuel efficiency standards for
new vehicles by just three miles per gallon would save more than
one million barrels of oil per day-five times the amount of oil
the Arctic Refuge is likely to provide.
ANWR and the Middle East
Senator Murkowski, after the Arctic drilling amendment was
defeated, ominously claimed that the vote played into the hands
of Saddam Hussein and other Middle East oil producers. But the
very companies that propose to drill the Arctic Refuge are also
heavily invested in Middle East oil. Will these foreign and domestic
oil companies, if the Arctic Refuge were in fact opened for business,
cut back on oil drilling and importing from the Middle East?
The DOE reports that Chevron, Exxon/Mobil, Phillips Petroleum,
and BP imported oil from Iraq into the US in 2000. All four of
these giant oil companies are also actively lobbying for the opening
the Arctic Refuge in Congress. These four are also active in Qatar,
while BP, Exxon and Phillips have large stakes in Saudi Arabia.
Chevron and BP are drilling in Kuwait. BP is also active in Iran
and Jordan, although not exporting to the US.
Though the Senate voted to block further oil imports from
Iraq, Hussein had already taken action to halt his exports to
the US. The Senate provision allows President Bush to certify
that oil imports from Iraq can continue, if it is in the "national
There is nothing in the Bush Energy Plan legislation to restrict
oil imports from the Middle East. Any Arctic Refuge oil leases
will simply be added to the oil company portfolios, to be drilled
when the price is right.
It is likely that George W Bush and his allies have received
more campaign contributions from oil companies than any other
administration in history. All told, data compiled by the nonprofit
Center for Responsive Politics show that oil and gas firms donated
$1,889,206 to Bush's presidential campaign, making the industry
among the top ten special interest contributors to Bush in Election
2000. Individuals connected with the oil industry contributed
at least an additional $85,500 to the Bush campaign. The Bush
Presidential Inaugural Committee received yet another $ 1 million
in contributions from oil and gas firms. The oil and gas industry
contributed at least $556,700 to Bush's 1994 and 1998 campaigns
for Governor of Texas. Individuals connected with the industry
contributed an additional $944,733.
Of course, George W Bush's was not the only set of campaigns
that benefited from the largess of the oil companies. Exxon/Mobil
Corp. spent $3,280,216 to influence Congressional and Presidential
campaigns from 1995 to 2000. BP/Amoco Corp. spent $2,989,073 during
the same period. Occidental Petroleum spent $1,544,774; Texaco
Inc. spent $1,272,585.
Senator Murkowski received $146,779 from oil and gas companies
and associated individuals for his re-election campaign during
the 1998 election cycle. His colleague in the House, Don Young
(R-AK), also an Arctic Refuge drilling advocate, received $119,708
for his 1998 election, $ 133,850 for 2000, and so far $27,750
for his upcoming race in 2002. It was Young, incidentally, who
suggested that environmentalists may have been responsible for
the airplane crashes into New York's World Trade Center and the
Pentagon on September 11. Attorney General John Ashcroft received
$151,149 from the oil and gas industry for his failed Senate race
There are many additional ties between the oil industry and
the Bush administration - indeed, both President Bush and Vice
President Cheney are former heads of oil companies in Texas.
The notion that the US can quench its enormous energy needs
with oil from our public lands has for too long ruled what passes
for US energy policy If there are dangers in our dependency on
foreign countries for oil resources, then shouldn't we reduce
our oil use?
The costs of continued use of oil should be painfully obvious
every time we inhale dirty air or hear of another deadly oil spill.
Scientists warn us of the dangers of global warming, caused in
no small part by combustion of oil, but the Bush Administration
gainsays that threat, flouting international efforts to reduce
The oil companies themselves are behind the ideology of oil
addiction practiced by the Bush Administration and too many members
of Congress. Flush with campaign contributions, they wish to scare
us into doing what's best for big oil, not what's best for America.
Mark J. Palmer is Director of Wildlife Alive, a subproject
of the International Marine Mammal Project. He formerly served
as Chairman o: the Sierra Club's Arctic Campaign Steering Committee,
helping thwart attempts by then-President George Bush Senior to
open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Much
of the information contained in this article was compiled by member
groups of the Alaska Coalition, to which the author expresses
his grateful thanks.