'Full and open debate'

Was Halliburton chief Dick Cheney being ironic when he wrote to Vice President Al Gore?

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On May 30, 1997, Dick Cheney dispatched a two-page letter to Vice President Al Gore in hopes of staving off new federal regulations that presumably would prove both cumbersome and costly to Halliburton Company, the global oil-field services firm that Cheney had run since 1995.

The letter was obtained exclusively by the Center for Public Integrity through a recent Freedom of Information Act request.

At issue was a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency, announced some six months earlier, designed to make national air-quality standards more stringent. "We are now hoping to hear from a wide range of the American people," EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner declared upon announcing the proposal, "from scientists and environmentalists to industry experts, small business owners, doctors and parents, to receive the broadest possible public comment and input on this important issue."

Browner got her wish, and then some: both EPA and Gore's office were besieged with comments, with environmentalists and health-care advocates generally lending their support to the proposal and business interests, worried about increased costs for compliance, insisting that the revised standards were not only based on questionable science, but they offered uncertain health benefits and would cause the sort of economic harm that could ripple throughout society.

Cheney, who served as chairman and chief executive officer of Texas-based Halliburton, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the critics. "Implementation of these standards," he wrote to Gore, "would cause great harm to consumers, my own industry, and the U.S. economy and will still not deliver the promised significant enhancement of health protection to the American public." And his five-paragraph letter, which until now has remained buried in a government archive, went on to take issue with the EPA's scientific methodology, finally concluding with a plea for the vice president: "I urge you to counsel EPA to issue final rules which maintain the existing ozone and particulate matter standards so that unanswered questions regarding the scientific justification, benefits, costs, feasibility and alternatives to new air quality standards are addressed in full and open debate."

Four years later, as Gore's vice presidential replacement, it was Cheney's turn to field the suggestions of America's energy-service firms, trade associations, public interest groups, and others interested in matters with profound environmental implications. But as point man for the development of a national energy policy, the vice president was no longer interested in "full and open" discourse. Instead, he was intent on chairing off-the-record skull sessions, the substance of which, along with the identities of those who attended, was deemed of no interest to the public, the Congress, historians, or, for that matter, anyone else outside the Bush-Cheney Administration.

Cheney and his attorneys have so far fended off all attempts to unearth details about the National Energy Policy Development Group, which ultimately produced a report that promised lucrative prizes for oil and gas firms, the coal and nuclear industries, and other energy producers. Congressional Democrats, for example, were rebuffed in their quest for details about energy task force deliberations. And for the first time in its history, the General Accounting Office sued for access to the papers of a federal official. But in December 2002, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the GAO has no legal standing to sue the vice president, thereby permitting the White House to keep secret the details of Cheney's private meetings with industry.

Now Cheney must clear one last hurdle: This spring, the Supreme Court of the United States is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case pitting the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch against the administration. The two nonprofit organizations won legal victories in 2002 when a federal court judge ordered Cheney's office to turn over to them key energy task force documents. An appeals court refused to throw out that order, setting up a final legal showdown. Should the Supreme Court uphold the lower court order, the public will get a glimpse into the administration's energy task force deliberations, albeit after two years of stalling.

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