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U.S. energy secretary to face winter heating crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The next U.S. energy secretary will have to deal with the coldest winter the country has seen in years, skyrocketing heating bills and possible interruptions in natural gas and electricity supplies.

If Republican George W. Bush is sworn in as president in late January, several members of Congress have been mentioned as possible choices for the top Energy Department job.

They include Democrat Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas. Gorton lost his job last month in a close race to high-tech millionaire Maria Cantwell.

Other names circulating among Washington insiders as possible Bush picks for the nation's top energy post are Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza and Kenneth Lay, who heads the giant natural gas firm Enron Corp.

Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan would not confirm who is being considered for the post, but said Bush will "move quickly" to fill cabinet positions as soon as the election contest is resolved. "We recognize that energy prices have a significant impact on the economy, and therefore it's important for the next president to put an energy policy in place quickly," Sullivan said.

No serious names have surfaced for the post from the camp of Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee who has challenged Florida's certification of Bush as winner of the state's 25 electoral college votes.

The new president will have to move fast to put his energy secretary in place to tackle anger from consumers over rising heating bills.

The issue is not entirely new. Almost a year to the day before the upcoming Jan. 20 inauguration, current energy secretary Bill Richardson was preparing for several town hall meetings in the Northeast to hear complaints from consumers about what were then record high prices and low supplies of heating oil.

This time around the Energy Department is predicting the average family will be stuck with natural gas bills 62 percent higher from last winter and heating oil costs up 38 percent.

Lawmakers on short list

Picking a member of Congress would be a smart political move by Bush, because an energy nominee who is a fellow lawmaker would likely win easy approval from the U.S. Senate, according to congressional sources.

If he becomes president, Bush's selection for energy secretary is expected to get tough scrutiny from Democrats to see if the nominee has close ties to the oil industry.

Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney have been accused of being in the pocket of multinational oil firms because of their former employment in the energy sector and the huge political contributions oil firms gave their presidential campaign.

Choosing a Democrat would show that Bush is trying to reach across party lines, and also remove a Democratic lawmaker from Congress to increase the slim vote margin the Republicans will have in the House and Senate.

Hall is the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Power Subcommittee and supports many of Bush's energy policies, including the controversial plan to allow oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Hall, 77, would seriously consider any request to head the Energy Department, Hall's spokeswoman said.

Breaux, whose home state of Louisiana is a large producer of oil and natural gas, has also said he would consider serving in a Bush administration as energy secretary.

The 62-year-old Breaux said he has not been officially asked to come aboard, but would probably be more useful staying in the Senate.

Gorton, who is 72, lost his Senate seat in the November election after serving three terms. He has dealt with a number of energy issues as a member of the Senate Energy Committee.

Reuters news material shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium.


Friday, December 8, 2000


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