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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2005

Congress near success in moving energy bill

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - After a week of Senate debate over eye-popping gasoline prices, corn-based ethanol, the value of pristine shoreline, and the future of windmills and nuclear power, the White House is cautiously optimistic that the far-reaching, energy bill it has been pushing for five years will get to the President's desk this summer.

In a series of important Senate votes on energy amendments this week, the White House won nearly every issue with significant bipartisanship. The House passed its energy bill in April.

Although most experts concede the legislation would have no immediate impact on sky-high prices at the pump - the price of a barrel of oil soared to $56.50 this week - there is almost no aspect of a consumer's day that would be unaffected by the pending legislation.

If passed, it will impact the cost of energy; regulations to control environmental cleanup; whether America's energy increasingly comes from nuclear power and coal or from wind and hydropower, and fuel efficiency and the size of tomorrow's cars.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (D., Tenn.) said at the end of voting on a number of key amendments this week, "We are making good progress. It leaves me very optimistic. We are going to complete this bill next Friday."

Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the Senate minority leader, said, "We've worked through some complicated issues. We're going to finish this next week. I think it would be good for the country that they see we are now legislating."

Some provisions are not controversial, such as changes in operating procedures for power plants designed to avoid massive brownouts as happened in the summer of 2003, which cut electric power to 50 million people. Some other provisions of the bill would increase the liability by nuclear plant operators from $63 million to $95 million and increase research into clean coal technology.

But provisions to deal with global climate change, which will be voted on this week, are still a potential deal breaker. The White House still opposes efforts to add restrictions on heat-trapping emissions believed to contribute to global warming to the energy bill and they are not in the House version. But a bipartisan group of senators are intent on getting such a provision.

Last year both the House and the Senate passed energy bills but the process stalled over an arcane dispute on whether producers of methyl tertiary butyl ether, added to gasoline, should be subject to lawsuits. The House version this year again says they should get a waiver from lawsuits; the Senate version will not provide it. A major sticking point before that was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but that has been taken out of the current legislation.

In yet another speech this past week demanding action on energy, President Bush predicted high gasoline prices will ignite tempers around the nation if action on energy policy stalls in Congress again, although he conceded that the bill would not automatically drive down prices anytime soon.

"The American people know that an energy bill will not change the price of gas immediately, but they're not going to tolerate inaction in Washington as they watch the underlying problems grow worse," Mr. Bush said.

He again said the United States must produce more crude oil, develop alternative sources of energy, build more nuclear plants, reduce demand from countries such as China which will soon be competing with the United States for Saudi oil and promote conservation.

Nonetheless, the White House does not want any sort of goal set to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The White House worked hard to defeat a move by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) to set a goal of reducing crude oil consumption by 40 percent by 2025. About 58 percent of the daily use of 20 million barrels is imported. Unless something changes, the United States will be importing 68 percent of its oil use by 2025.

Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.) said he opposed Ms. Cantwell's amendment because it was a "back-door effort to increase the corporate average fuel economy" (CAFE) standards for automobiles. He said that was unrealistic and would mean disruption in the transportation industry, mean smaller, lighter cars - "golf carts" - and more highway deaths.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) agreed, saying Ms. Cantwell's proposed goal of reducing 7.6 million gallons of imported oil a day would require a fuel economy standard of 78 miles per gallon for cars and 68 miles per gallon for trucks. He also said it would send many more jobs abroad.

Ms. Cantwell said the United States should take an example from Brazil, which reduced its imported oil from 80 percent to 11 percent by developing sugar-based ethanol. She said that after former President Kennedy set a national goal of going to the moon, it was done in 10 years. "It's amazing how many people respond" to a government goal, she said.

But her amendment was defeated late in the week by a vote of 53 to 47.

Despite opposition from a coalition of 26 Republicans and Democrats, 70 joined to set financial incentives for mandating 8 billion gallons of ethanol, mostly corn-based, by 2012, supported by the White House.

But the Senate bucked the administration on another amendment, offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.) to require that by 2020, 10 percent of all electricity consumed come from renewable power, such as wind turbines. After a feisty debate on whether Americans would rebel at windmills dotting the landscape, the Senate approved the goal by a vote of 52 to 48.

Still undetermined is whether the Senate will vote to increase offshore oil and gas development - New Jersey's two Democrats pleaded that their 127 miles of shoreline not have to take on more environmental risks - as well as curbing carbon emissions as a contributor to global warming. At least three amendments will be offered on carbon emissions, after national academies of science in 11 countries, including the United States, said science now justifies taking "prompt action" to reduce carbon emissions.

In the meantime the Senate Finance Committee is working on a package of $10.9 billion in energy tax incentives focusing on renewable fuels and conservation.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R., Wyo.), said he is "delighted" that the Senate seems to be moving toward passage of the energy bill. "We have talked about this for years," he said. "We can make this work."

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D., Hawaii) said. "We have had no comprehensive energy bill since 1991. I rise (to speak) today with a profound sense of optimism. This (bill) provides the best opportunity I've seen in years for the country."

One reason for new optimism is that New Mexico's two senators, Pete Domenici, a Republican and Mr. Bingaman, the Democrat, for the first time are working in tandem to try to get the bill passed in their roles as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Contact Ann McFeatters at: amcfeatters@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7071.



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