Evils of Access

SYNOPSIS: The administration is wedded to preconceived ideas, refuses to be held accountable for the resulting mistakes, and therefore repeats its mistakes

As Senate investigators examine evidence on the administration's Enron contacts, the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, has already delivered the verdict: Everything's fine, because officials did nothing to help Enron as it was collapsing.

I believe him. I also believe that the administration played no role in the death of Elvis Presley, an equally relevant assertion.

Mr. Gonzales is pulling the same trick on energy policy that Dick Cheney has pulled on antiterrorist policy: Respond to real, serious questions about the administration's actions by self-righteously denying charges that nobody is actually making. Nobody has accused the White House of helping Enron when it was down, just as no Democratic leader has accused the administration of deliberately allowing Sept. 11 to happen.

The real questions in both cases are whether the administration failed to act against real threats because it was preoccupied with a preconceived agenda; why officials who manifestly got it wrong have not been held accountable; and whether, because nobody has been held accountable, the administration is continuing to make the same mistakes.

I know that I'm about to get a barrage of mail saying that energy policy and terrorism are not comparable; but bear with me for a minute.

In the case of energy policy, the administration still won't release information about Dick Cheney's energy task force. But it's clear that energy companies, and only energy companies, had access to top officials. The result was that during the California power crisis which, it is increasingly apparent, was largely engineered by Enron and other companies that had the administration's ear the administration did nothing.

But just as John Ashcroft, who brushed aside appeals to make terrorism a priority, remains in charge of our effort against terrorism, Mr. Cheney who ridiculed conservation and price controls, which in the end were what saved California remains in charge of energy policy. And that scares me more than terrorism.

Earlier this week the Environmental Protection Agency released a report confirming what the vast majority of climatologists, and every other advanced-country government, had already concluded: human activity is causing global warming, and the consequences will be nasty. But the E.P.A. did not propose any preventive action. Instead, it talked only about adapting to the changes.

Old hands recalled the days of James Watt, the interior secretary back in the 1980's. When scientists discovered that industrial chemicals were depleting the earth's protective ozone layer, Mr. Watt suggested that people wear hats, sunscreen and dark glasses. Luckily for the planet, he was overruled; the United States joined other countries in curbing production of ozone-depleting chemicals. The ozone hole is still growing, but disaster has at least been postponed.

No such happy outcome seems likely on global warming. After a curious pause, George W. Bush rejected his own administration's analysis. "I read the report put out by the bureaucracy," he sneered.

Clearly, this was a replay of what happened early last year, when the E.P.A.'s Christie Whitman assured the public that Mr. Bush would honor his pledge to control carbon dioxide emissions only to be betrayed when the coal and oil industries weighed in on the subject. So the administration learned nothing from the California crisis; it still takes its advice from the energy companies that financed its campaign (and made many administration officials, including Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, rich).

And it's one thing to reward your friends with subsidies and lax regulation. It's something quite different to let them dictate policy on climate change.

Many people believe that the Bush administration had a special window of opportunity on global warming policy. Politically, it could have been a Nixon-goes-to-China moment: Mr. Bush could have passed legislation that would have been totally out of reach for a Democrat. Furthermore, many corporations were actually eager for guidelines that would allow them to make long-term plans.

But because the administration continues to listen only to the usual suspects, that window of opportunity is closing fast. And bear this in mind: Whatever he imagines, Osama bin Laden can't destroy Western civilization. Carbon dioxide can.

Originally published in The New York Times, 6.7.02