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In some ways, Spencer Abraham owes John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, and Linda Chavez a big thank you. With Secretary of Labor-designee Chavez shot down in flames and Ashcroft and Norton — George W. Bush’s nominees for attorney general and secretary of interior — continuing to draw fire, the staunchly conservative Abraham, tapped for secretary of energy, is slipping past critics all but unscathed. But Abraham’s toughest fight may come after confirmation, as he is handed the reins of the notoriously unruly Department of Energy and a pile of urgent, complex, and politically unpalatable agency business. From the ongoing crisis in California’s deregulated power market to tangled litigation over storage of nuclear waste in Nevada and security breaches in the weapons laboratories, Abraham will have his hands full in his new job. “He’s being tossed into what amounts to the lion’s den,” says Robert McDiarmid, name partner at Washington, D.C., infrastructure and energy boutique Spiegel & McDiarmid. “I don’t think anyone warned him that it’s an impossible agency to run.” Though Abraham has solid support from those in the industry, environmentalists and other liberal interest groups pull no punches in asserting that Abraham, a former senator from Michigan who in 1999 co-sponsored a bill to dismantle the agency, is a poor choice to head the Energy Department. The League of Conservation Voters, which made Abraham its No. 1 target for defeat in November when he was seeking re-election to the Senate, called his nomination “terrible news.” The Natural Resources Defense Council said it “strongly opposes” the nomination, pointing to Abraham’s votes against increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and his opposition to funding renewable and solar energy research. Joining the chorus, Public Citizen called him “no friend to consumers or the environment,” and the Sierra Club cited Abraham’s “poor environmental record” and his support of two bills that would have allowed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But beyond the flurry of press releases, advocates acknowledge there is little in the way of active lobbying or grassroots pressure to kill the nomination. “Obviously, we’ve got grave concerns about Abraham and want senators to hold his feet to the fire about some of the remarks he’s made, especially about the Arctic refuge,” says Sierra Club spokesman Allen Mattison. But he adds, “We’re focused on Norton and Ashcroft. It’s about picking fights … . You’ve got to take on what you can, given your resources.” Indeed, a Democratic staffer in the Senate predicts that Abraham’s nomination will move quickly after his hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. In part, Abraham escaped targeting because he is a former senator, which is expected to give him an edge when he comes before his ex-colleagues as a nominee. But another element of the equation has to do with the nature of the job and the agency itself. “People view DOE as hopeless,” says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “What you have at DOE is a lot of career staff with a lot of close ties to contractors. The agency runs this way regardless of who’s in charge of it. Political appointees have a very difficult time there, more so than at other agencies.” She adds, “I don’t think Bush is doing his friend much of a favor by turning the agency over to him. It’s a dangerous place.” ON THE HOT SEAT Established in 1977, the Department of Energy was cobbled together from the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Federal Power Commission, and assorted parts and programs from other federal entities. With 10,000 employees and 100,000 contractors, the far-flung agency is charged with fostering a secure and reliable energy system, acting as a steward of the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile, overseeing cleanup of nuclear weapons complexes, and developing innovations in science and technology through the network of national laboratories. The result, say those who know the agency well, is a disconnected set of parts difficult to steer in the same direction. Further, the national labs, shrouded in secrecy from their earliest days as the incubators of nuclear weapons, are described as fiefdoms that are hard for D.C. appointees to wrap their arms around. It is a tough agency to run even under the best of circumstances, let alone given the state of the market today. “He is going to be in the hot seat,” says Merrill Kramer, who heads the electric utility practice at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. “The range of energy issues that will be facing Bush/Cheney and Mr. Abraham has never been so great since the days of the energy crisis and the Arab oil embargo.” He adds, “The general feeling in the energy bar is that he’s got quite a learning curve ahead.” While in the Senate, Abraham, 48, did not serve on the energy committee, and has no particular experience in the field. He is, however, a 1979 graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was a co-founder of the Federalist Society, and even his critics agree he is up to the job intellectually. Prior to serving in the Senate, Abraham was chairman of the Michigan State Republican Party and deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle. Tom Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute and a member of the Energy transition team, called Abraham a “leader in the Senate, a very thoughtful policy person, just who we need to help address the range of challenging energy issues the country faces today.” And the National Association of Manufacturers President Jerry Jasinowski said in a statement that Abraham has “a solid, steady hand and a sophisticated grip on policy.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, energy and natural resource companies donated more than $449,000 to Abraham’s failed re-election bid. Still, the big unknown is how Abraham will fare running the agency he once tried to destroy. In 1999, he co-sponsored a bill that would have done away with the department, abolishing some programs outright and transferring others to rival agencies — such as the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense. The bill died in committee. One of Abraham’s most immediate challenges will be working with local and state authorities, private companies, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which is part of the Energy Department but operates as an independent agency) to clean up the mess that deregulation has created in California. California’s two largest energy companies are on the verge of collapse, nearby regional power suppliers are wary of shipping power to the state, and consumers are facing energy shortages and dramatic rate hikes. “It’s a no-win situation for [Abraham],” says energy lawyer McDiarmid. “The Bush policy assumes the public interest is benefited by continued deregulation. But if the California thing craters entirely, I think that kills the idea of doing it nationally, at least for some time.” The secretary has authority over the federal power marketing agencies such as Bonneville and the Western Area Power Administration. In a short-term fix, current Secretary Bill Richardson has ordered the agencies to sell power to California. At the same time, there is now a drought in the Pacific Northwest — bad news for the great hydroelectric dams like Grand Coulee. “Unless Senator Abraham can make it rain in the literal sense, if Bonneville doesn’t stop drawing down water for California, they won’t be able to meet the load in the summer,” says McDiarmid, adding, “The litigation has only begun.” GOING NUCLEAR Another ongoing problem concerns the storage of radioactive waste. This year, the secretary of energy must make a recommendation whether to proceed with creating an underground repository for spent nuclear fuel in Yucca Mountain, Nev. The plan is opposed by the state of Nevada as well as numerous environmental groups, which say that the site is unsuitable for a host of reasons, such as the possibility of radioactive waste leaching into the ground water. In Senate votes, Abraham has consistently supported moving forward with the project. At the same time, 30-odd power plants have filed 14 suits against the Energy Department for breach of contract. The power plants have paid billions in advance fees to the department for nuclear storage, but the government has yet to accept any waste and the Yucca Mountain opening has been pushed back to 2010. The plaintiffs won in trial court, and the Federal Circuit affirmed the decision in August, says Jerry Stouck of D.C.’s Spriggs & Hollingsworth, one of the power plant lawyers. The only question left is damages, and the government’s exposure could top $30 billion. “The government can avoid these damages by moving [the waste] somewhere,” says Stouck. “The question is, where is it going to go? That gets into politics. There are a lot of places they could move it. All it takes is courage.” Yet another delicate issue for the secretary is security in the weapons labs, particularly after the embarrassment of the Wen Ho Lee prosecution and the missing computer hard drives later found stashed behind a copy machine in Los Alamos. Such scandals have tarnished the institution, as well as making it more difficult for Energy Department to recruit top-notch scientists. “The piece that most secretaries of energy have underestimated is the importance and challenge of managing the national laboratory system,” says Patricia Godley, a partner at energy specialty firm Van Ness Feldman who served as assistant secretary for fossil energy from 1994 to 1998. For Abraham, a crucial move will be bringing on a deputy who understands the labs and is known and respected by those who run them, she says. But aside from all the direct responsibilities that go along with being the secretary of energy, whoever holds the post is also likely to feel the heat from consumers upset about paying more at the gas pump and for their utilities. “The secretary’s legal authority to act is somewhat circumscribed, but still, he’s the one who is blamed when something goes wrong,” says Godley. “What he does have is the opportunity to use the post to be a leader and honest broker in solving crises.”

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