House Panel Revives U.S. Energy Bill
WASHINGTON A House committee Tuesday dusted off an energy bill that backers say will boost U.S. oil and natural gas production but critics deride as a bonanza for oil companies with no immediate relief for consumer pocketbooks.
Republican lawmakers hope red-hot U.S. crude oil prices and record-high U.S. gasoline prices will give momentum to a broad energy bill packed with incentives to increase domestic supplies of oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewable energy.
Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy Committee, said he wants to finish panel talks by next week on a bill that would boost domestic oil and natural gas and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers. The committee was scheduled to meet again Wednesday for bill-writing.
Democrats criticized Barton's draft version as a give-away for oil companies that offers no short-term help for Americans facing U.S. crude oil prices near $60 per barrel and retail gasoline prices above $2 a gallon.
"It will harm the environment, hurt consumers (and) cost taxpayers a bundle of money," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the committee.
The legislation is expected to win easy passage in the full House. The Senate has not yet begun writing its version.
Barton's draft bill is little changed from legislation that twice passed the House but failed in the Senate because of controversy over a water-fouling fuel additive.
New measures were added to ease environmental constraints blocking new U.S. oil refineries and to slash the number of special gasoline blends required to ease air pollution.
Dingell said Republicans declined to consult with panel Democrats on changing the bill.
"We're essentially meeting to consider last year's failed conference report," he said.
Panel Democrats criticized the bill for failing to improve the fuel-efficiency of U.S. cars and trucks, and doing little to promote energy conservation.
Barton said action is needed to address falling oil and gas production in the Lower 48 states. "It would be a grave error to turn away from the energy sources that we already have," he said. "Right now America runs on oil."
The House bill also includes a potential deal-breaker, which would shield U.S. refiners and makers of the additive MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, from liability lawsuits for contaminating water supplies.
"This is a windfall for Exxon Mobil but an attack on communities all over this country facing contaminated drinking water," said Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat.
Democrats said they would offer amendments to strip the MTBE measure from the energy bill draft.
The language would block product liability lawsuits filed after Sept. 5, 2003, and give refiners 10 years to switch from MTBE to other additives to make gasoline burn more cleanly.
Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, another sensitive issue, will be handled by the House Resources Committee, which has authority over federal lands.
That panel could consider this week legislation for ANWR drilling, which would likely be rolled into a broad energy bill, a panel spokeswoman said. After years of opposition, the Senate voted last month to lease the Arctic refuge for drilling.