You could call it by its twenty-dollar title, or you could just call it the Fossil Fuel Club. Either way, it meets most Wednesday mornings in the Vice President's ornate Ceremonial Room. Around the conference table sits a group that includes Dick Cheney and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, both oilmen; Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who chaired the electricity-guzzling aluminum maker Alcoa; and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the former Michigan Senator who attracted wads of campaign cash from energy companies in a losing re-election effort.
Welcome to the the National Energy Policy Development Group, formed earlier this year by President George W. Bush to plot an energy future that is less reliant on foreign oil and less vulnerable to natural-gas price spikes and shortages. "If these were easy issues, the Clinton Administration would have taken care of them," Vice President Cheney told TIME. His group meets in secret--much to the chagrin of Democrats, who were attacked by the opposition when Hillary Clinton's infamous health-care task force operated behind closed doors. Hillary tried in vain to sort the winners from the losers in health care. In the Fossil Fuel Club, everyone's a winner.
The big prize in Cheney's energy sweepstakes will go to a resource of which America has a 250-year supply and a nasty history: coal. Last week Cheney aides summoned its champions to a White House auditorium to give them the good news. There were West Virginia coal baron James (Buck) Harless, who raised at least $100,000 as a Bush "Pioneer"; Stephen Addington, president of Kentucky-based AEI Resources, whose executives gave more than $600,000 to Republicans last election; and lobbyists for Peabody Energy, the biggest digger in the country, whose chairman gave the Republican Party more than $250,000 last year. Money to burn, perhaps. "We were told coal is an important part of the Administration's energy strategy," says Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, who came to Washington with scores of other carbon enthusiasts.
Certainly coal has some positives. It is plentiful, accessible and cheaper to transport than gas or oil. Despite those benefits, coal was orphaned by the Clinton Administration as a sooty legacy of the Industrial Revolution, responsible for everything from acid rain to increasing incidence of asthma. And because of the high costs of pollution controls on coal-fired plants, utilities have turned to cleaner-burning natural gas for 90% of new plants. But by Che-ney's estimate, the country will need at least 1,300 new electric-power plants over the next 20 years. And coal, which already generates more than half of U.S. capacity, is a logical choice to power many of them.
Cheney insists that "good politics is a sound energy policy." But coal has political energy that other fuels can't match. It's plentiful in the political-battleground states of the Midwest and Southeast. West Virginia, the capital of coal, provided Bush his margin of victory in electoral votes and marked a G.O.P. breakthrough. Sources tell TIME that White House political director Ken Mehlman cited Bush's victory in that Democratic presidential stronghold as a reason why he should renounce a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide, a major coal pollutant. "The current political climate is the best we've seen in many years," says a major coal-company lobbyist.