WASHINGTON — Federal workers in power-strapped California could be taking the stairs and sweating out the summer under an energy conservation directive signed by President Bush Thursday.
His order came after criticism of his previous budget cuts in energy efficiency programs.
“We’ll work to help California in any way we can. And the best way we can is to be good citizens,” Bush said after a Cabinet Room meeting with his top energy-policy advisers.
He ordered federal facilities in California to cut power use “to the maximum extent consistent with the effective discharge of public responsibilities.” For military facilities, which use 1 percent of the state’s energy load, that means cutting peak-hour usage by one-tenth, said deputy Defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
The president, who has been criticized as doing too little to address California’s energy crisis, dispatched Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to meet with California Gov. Gray Davis Thursday night in Sacramento and, on Friday, to visit an energy-efficient federal building in San Francisco.
Even before Abraham left Washington, Davis, a Democrat, sniffed at Bush’s directive. “Surely the federal government can do more and match California’s 20 percent savings at all state buildings,” he said.
Raising thermostats to 78 degrees, closing “nonessential space,” turning off excess lighting and switching off escalators during so-called “stage 2 alerts” are among the Energy Department’s recommended conservation measures. In California, a stage 2 alert is called when electricity reserves drop or are expected to drop below 5 percent.
The White House, too, will do its part, Bush said:
“We’re focused right now on California because that’s a state that’s going to suffer blackouts. But we always have to be mindful of being energy efficient. And since I’ve asked other agencies to review their policy, I’m going to ask the White House to do the same.” All federal offices have 30 days to report to Abraham on their conservation action plans.
Bush also made federally owned backup and mobile generators available to help in emergency shortages. One idea to have nuclear-powered submarines help support the state’s electricity supplies was among what one White House aide called “wacky proposals” discarded when Cheney’s task force got down to business in February.
Thursday’s announcement – during a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Abraham, Wolfowitz, White House chief of staff Andrew Card, economic adviser Larry Lindsey and others – came four days after Cheney suggested, to the environmentalists’ consternation, that conservation would not be a key part of the president’s long-term energy plan.
“I think conservation has got to be part of making sure we have got a reasonable energy policy, but what the vice president was saying was we can’t conserve our way to energy independence,” Bush said. “We have got to do both. We’ve got to conserve, but we also have to find new sources of energy.”
When Cheney and his energy task force report later this month, “I suspect the people will find a balanced approach,” Bush said.
It was unclear whether Thursday’s order could make a dent in energy consumption, as Bush set no targets.
“We’re not trying to pick a figure arbitrarily out of the sky,” said Abraham, estimating that the federal government accounts for 1.8 to 2 percent of California’s electricity consumption.
Democrats on Capitol Hill said Bush had a good idea but it didn’t go far enough.
“We ought to be using federal agencies that have the power now to hold down on these outrageous price increases that are going on on the West Coast and might spread throughout the whole country,” said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer ruled out price limits, saying they would increase shortages.
On Capitol Hill, Abraham came under sharp criticism as he testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee, explaining his department’s budget request for the coming year.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said Bush’s plan to cut millions of dollars from programs to develop energy-efficient buildings, more fuel-efficient automobiles, new appliance standards and more efficient lighting don’t make sense.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., cited a General Accounting Office study that concluded $7 billion in energy efficient investments produced $51 billion in energy savings.
Except for increases for a program that helps low-income people weatherize their homes, “the department’s conservation budget frankly is a disaster,” added Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.
Abraham defended the cuts as “very justified” and said that many of them were in areas where private companies “are in a position to pick up a greater share of energy research.”
Later Thursday, Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and, among other things, discussed how the United States, Canada and Mexico could work together to boost energy supplies.