WASHINGTON – The Bush administration turned over thousands of documents Monday related to Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, including some showing industry's attempt to influence the direction of the administration's energy plan.
But most of the papers, released in response to court orders, were blanked out and provided little substantive information. This prompted critics to accuse the administration of continuing to hold back vital information surrounding development of President Bush's energy plan a year ago.
Among the papers, however, were documents from the Environmental Protection Agency revealing an oil industry push to ease state regulation of so-called "boutique" gasoline blends and auto industry pressure to ease federal fuel economy rules.
Two federal judges ordered the release of the documents, including numerous copies of e-mails, as part of lawsuits brought by private groups trying to determine who influenced the crafting of the administration's energy plan, which was unveiled with great fanfare last May.
The administration also faces a lawsuit by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which wants to learn the names of people who met with Cheney or his top aides leading up to the energy report's release. That lawsuit was not involved in the release of documents Monday.
The disclosed papers stem from Freedom of Information lawsuits filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. They included papers from EPA, the Agriculture Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The Energy Department provided more than 11,000 pages of documents, but withheld 15,000 other pages, citing exemptions for information related to internal agency practices, deliberations and personnel.
Of the nearly 5,000 documents obtained by Judicial Watch, most of the internal communications were heavily redacted, often with only the names of the sender and recipient, and a subject heading, left readable, said Larry Klayman, the group's chairman.
"What we've seen so far, the Bush administration is withholding an inordinate amount of documents, suggesting they are obstructing these proceedings," said Klayman.
A few of the papers, however, provided some insight into the activities of interest groups seeking to influence the administration's internal energy debate prior to release of the Cheney task force report.
Among the papers turned over by the EPA was a three-page memo from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, dated March 22, 2001, declaring that the federal auto fuel economy rule, known as CAFE, "is an ineffective energy policy."
The alliance instead supported consumer tax credits for advanced technology vehicles, and urged development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The task force report supported such tax benefits, refrained from urging higher fuel economy requirements and urged development of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
At least three major oil companies, according to papers released by EPA, urged the administration to take steps to eliminate the "boutique" gasoline required in many parts of the country.
One of the companies, Citco, urged the administration "to exercise federal authority to prevent states" from establishing separate fuel standards. The Cheney task force urged EPA to deal with the boutique fuels issue.
A group of Northeast utilities in another document urged the administration to embrace trading of environmental credits as a way to deal with power plant pollution. The Cheney report embraced such "market approaches" in dealing with smokestack emissions.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, expressed surprise at how few such documents were among the boxes of papers. "There should be many more documents from energy industry executives and they are missing," he said.
The internal e-mails provided even less insight because they were so heavily blanked out with the contents of many redacted almost in their entirety.
For example, there was this e-mail from James Duffield, an economist in the Agriculture Department's office that promotes ethanol and biofuels. In the memo, dated Feb. 14, 2001, to the Office of Management and Budget, Duffield wrote: "Joe, here's some comments. I haven't seen what the boys sent from Houston, so there may be some redundancy."
Since all the comments were blanked out, it's not known what Duffield or those in Houston suggested. The Cheney task force three months later urged the promotion of ethanol and biofuels.
While the White House has vowed to fight attempts to release the names of people who talked directly with Cheney and his aids about energy, it has said it all along had planned to release the redacted papers.
Critics accused them of stalling.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said the agencies had enough time to collect the papers and in many of the cases set a March 25 deadline. In a separate case, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled on Feb. 21 that the Energy Department had to release its documents, also by March 25, in response to the Natural Resources Defense Council's lawsuit.