Gore's 'Big Power'

Robert Novak

9/25/2000 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's $75 billion energy plan, that was revised to coincide with the spike in oil prices, contains a $68 billion federal subsidy to help electric power companies make their plants environmentally friendly. Therein lies the dark side of the vice president's brand of populism. The money to clean up power plants was included in Gore's energy plan, released June 27, and expanded last Thursday to propose government sale of stored petroleum. It included the power subsidy, which was drafted by a Washington energy consultant who is one of Gore's closest advisers on the environment. One of the major beneficiaries of the plan would be a power company notorious for polluting the atmosphere. To close the circle, the company has used the Gore advisor as a paid consultant. In polishing up his energy program, Gore played a variation on his Los Angeles acceptance speech's populistic attack on certain categories of American business that have broken no law. This time, the target was the energy industry ("Big Oil"), assailed for benefiting from the OPEC cartel's manipulation of oil prices. But Gore is no across-the-board enemy of corporate America. The vice president always takes care of friends. While positioning himself as the foe of Big Oil, he emerges as the friend of Big Power. In that category is American Electric Power (AEP), based in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the Midwest's biggest supplier of coal-generated power. AEP, sued by the Environmental Protection Agency last year for alleged violation of the Clear Air Act, is widely viewed as a pariah by the environmentalist movement. It is accused of running one of the dirtiest operations to generate power. AEP has frequently paid for advice from environmental advocate Kathleen A. McGinty, who has an unusual resume indeed. As senior legislative assistant for energy and environmental policy to then Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, she quickly gained a reputation on Capitol Hill as a ferocious regulator and passionate advocate for global climate control. Gore handpicked her for Clinton administration posts, enabling her to affect national policy in a major way. In 1993, she was named, at age 29, to head the new White House Office on Environmental Policy. In 1996, she was promoted to head the Council on Environmental Quality, and became a leader in trying to sell to America the massively unpopular 1997 Gore-promoted Kyoto Treaty (never considered by the Senate) to radically cut back on energy consumption. Leaving the government in 1998 for a one-year sabbatical, McGinty came back last year as a consultant with the law and lobbying firm of Troutman Sanders. There, she has been engaged in an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, she advised the massive American Electric Power and the Atlanta-based Southern Co., another power giant (both major clients of Troutman Sanders). On the other, she moonlighted for her old boss, presidential candidate Gore, in drafting the June 27 energy plan. Since July, she has been working full-time for the Democratic National Committee. Gore's plan promises to "clean up the nation's aging power plants by using market-based enforcement and comprehensive standards to reduce pollution and increase efficiency." It offers "a menu of financial mechanisms" to "those power plants and industries that come forward with projects that promise to dramatically reduce climate and health-threatening pollution." In plain language, that means a big subsidy for electric power companies to help them clean up their plants. According to congressional energy sources, AEP would receive millions of dollars out of the $68 billion allocated to get right environmentally. AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp confirmed for this column that McGinty "consults" with his company "from time to time." McGinty, in an interview, called herself a "policy advisor" for Troutman Sanders but added that the Gore plan does not "benefit vested interests," while coming down hard on "big oil." Vice-presidential press secretary Jim Kennedy, calling the energy plan a campaign matter, would not address conflict-of-interest implications. Al Gore has always shown ability to reward individual corporate friends while castigating big business as predators. I previously reported that Gore had supported permission for deep oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, desired only by Occidental Petroleum Corp., the source of much of his family's wealth. But federal help for Occidental and American Power, and the potential for conflicts-of-interest fly beneath the radar in a capital where the hands of neither political party are clean. It is possible for the vice president's diluted brand of populism to flourish, because it is the way Washington works.