Low Voltage at the Energy Dept.

Secretary Abraham is letting the White House set the agenda

In the first months of the Bush Administration, the lights have flickered in California, New Yorkers have been warned of similar trouble, and analysts have predicted spikes in summer gasoline prices. To help cope with it all, George W. Bush, the oilman in the Oval Office, and Richard B. Cheney, his petroleum-industry sidekick, promise to unveil their "pump more" strategy in a month.

Meanwhile, there's one player who seems to be on the sidelines: Spencer Abraham. Bush's surprise pick to head the Energy Dept. hasn't exactly jumped into the fray. Indeed, Abraham is candid in noting that the White House "big dogs" are drafting the blueprint, with only modest input from Energy experts. A top industry rep says he met with a Cheney task force three times. Only once has anyone from Energy attended.

Call Abraham the Accidental Energy Secretary. He got the job after losing his reelection to the Senate, where he spent six years specializing in high-tech issues, not energy. Bush named him only after at least three others rejected the post. Abraham once even offered legislation to abolish the Energy Dept.

Abraham insists he's not out of the loop, adding that it's a "good idea" that Cheney is leading the President's task force because that shows energy is a national priority. Besides, he says, his department "will take a very major role in the implementation of policy. Sometimes we pay too much attention in Washington to public relations, as opposed to the substance."

True enough. But if Abraham isn't crafting solutions to the energy mess, won't he at least have a key role in building support for the plan in Congress? Only one problem: Even Abraham's friends admit that the shy Midwesterner lacks the requisite schmoozing skills. "He's going to have to convince senators that he's not just carrying an oil industry chain letter," says Ed Sarpolus, a Lansing (Mich.) pollster.

A favorite of economic conservatives, Abraham gets high marks for his intellect. But as Energy chief, he'll have to sell Bush's pro-industry policies in a Senate teeming with hostile Democrats. To complicate matters, Bush's plan to expand domestic production has little short-term payoff. "We're not going to take an approach that says that somehow all the energy demand increases of the next 20 years can be addressed with conservation," says Abraham. "The principal kinds of solutions are ones that are going to be driven by private investment."

TOUGH TASKS. One of his biggest challenges is persuading Congress to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though the oil won't be available for years and won't ease today's energy crunch. Equally controversial: opening other protected federal lands to natural-gas production. Nor is there much support for nuclear energy, which Bush hopes to boost by encouraging investment in nukes. And even GOP lawmakers may balk at the number of environmental rules Bush wants to relax to build oil refineries, electricity transmission lines, and pipelines.

Is Abraham up to the task? His defenders insist the 1979 Harvard law grad has come up to speed quickly. "He has the potential to be a star," says conservative journalist William Kristol, who served with Abraham on Vice-President Dan Quayle's staff. Supporters also say his Senate stint will prove valuable. "He will do very well in selling the Administration's plan on Capitol Hill," says David N. Parker, president of the American Gas Assn.

But doubts remain. Just when the White House needs an energetic pitchman, it has to make do with a reticent Abraham. In his first big address on Mar. 19 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he just read his eight-page speech, then disappeared without taking audience questions.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added to Abraham's hapless image in trying to explain why Bush failed to stop a Mar. 17 OPEC production cut. "There were communications. They were handled by the Secretary of Energy," he deadpanned.

Political pressure on Abraham is certain to build. GOP governors worry that California's energy shortage will spread eastward. Lawmakers of all stripes are braced for gasoline and electricity price hikes this summer. If Abraham can't convince the country that the Bush plan will ease their pain, he may decide that his original impulse--to abolish the Energy Dept.--was the right one after all.

By Laura Cohn in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.