It’s hard to remember — after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Blackwater, etc., took turns dominating our collective consciousness — but the Cheney Energy Task Force was once among the gravest of the Bush administration’s sins. Created in the second week of Bush’s first term, it was seen as the birth of the Bush-Cheney hyper-secretive neo-conservative crypto-fascist military-industrial crime syndicate.
Now, Obama frequently brags that under his administration, domestic oil production has hit an eight-year high. As he also points out, however, the president can’t have a significant, instantaneous effect on the energy supply. Indeed, we are currently enjoying this surge of oil production largely because of improvements to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which has increased the oil produced on state and private land. Much of the credit should go to technological innovators and the oilmen who’ve adopted their techniques. But some credit should be reserved for the Cheney Energy Task Force, which established the guidelines for the Bush administration’s response to these developments.
The Cheney Energy Task Force (proper name: National Energy Policy Development Group) consisted of the vice president; the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the secretaries of state, the Treasury, the interior, agriculture, commerce, transportation, and energy; and others. Their mission was simply to develop “a national energy policy designed to help bring together business, government, local communities and citizens to promote dependable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy for the future.” After meeting with about 300 groups and individuals, including representatives from the energy industry and environmental activists, the Task Force published its 169-page National Energy Policy report in the spring of 2001.
When the report came out, much of the controversy centered on the participants in the Task Force’s meetings. The group never published its record, so Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, suspecting that the group met mostly with Big Oil executives, sued to make them public. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled “prematurely,” and sent the case back to the lower court. After reevaluating the case, the appeals court found that the Task Force was excepted from the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which stipulates that federal committees must do their work in public, except when the group is composed entirely of unelected officials, finally concluding in May of 2005 that the records could remain unpublished. On cue, Paul Krugman accused the administration of following “a doctrine that makes the United States a sort of elected dictatorship: a system in which the president, once in office, can do whatever he likes, and isn’t obliged to consult or inform either Congress or the public.”
Now that Bush’s elected dictatorship has ended, the National Energy Policy report remains of interest because of the more lasting effects of its policy recommendations. Unsurprisingly for a government document dealing with such a large topic, many of the suggestions in the report were only vague recommendations that the administration “encourage progress.” But other passages in the report did inspire policies that contributed to the recent domestic fuel surge.
Fracking has been used since the 1940s, but it wasn’t very widely used at the time of the Task Force’s report. It wasn’t until 2002 that the modern fracking technique was perfected in the Bennett Formation in Texas. Suddenly decades’ worth of energy became available. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Marcellus Formation in the Northeast held 1.9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. By 2009, the EPA was estimating that the formation might yield 262 trillion cubic feet, equal to approximately ten years of U.S. consumption at current rates. Fracking can also be used to access crude oil; the Bakken formation in North Dakota saw a 250 percent increase in production over the last ten years. By 2010, Bakken was producing more oil than it could ship out (a glut that, by the way, would be eased by the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline).