Senators Seek Bipartisan Energy Bill with No Showstoppers
WASHINGTON Senators began plowing through an energy bill Tuesday that would include stronger conservation measures than already approved by the House and sidestep matters that could derail the measure -- such as drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge.
A string of provisions, from giving consumers rebates on energy efficient appliances to expanding the size of the government's emergency petroleum reserve, were to be taken up by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week, beginning with Tuesday's session.
Most of these issues already have been worked out in discussions in recent weeks between GOP and Democratic committee members and were expected to be part of the legislation without significant changes, according to committee staffers.
The panel in a two-hour meeting Tuesday focused on Indian energy issues, including actions that were aimed at making it easier for tribes to develop their energy resources.
More contentious matters were expected to be taken up next week or put off until floor action this summer: sites for liquefied natural gas terminals, subsidies for the nuclear power industry, whether to allow states to petition the federal government to allow energy development in off-limits coastal waters, and whether to require all utilities to use a certain amount of renewable fuels to produce electricity.
President Bush has called on Congress to produce a comprehensive energy bill by August. The House passed a bill last month, but its prospects in the Senate -- where energy legislation died two years ago -- remain uncertain.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the energy panel's chairman, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., its ranking Democrat, agreed to leave out of the Senate bill any mention of oil development in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or protection for the makers of the gasoline additive MTBE from liability lawsuits. Both are part of a House-passed bill, but were viewed as likely to jeopardize Senate passage if including in the legislation.
Domenici and Bingaman said they were hoping to advance legislation that can be widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats.
Domenici, noting that Congress has tried for five years to enact energy legislation and failed, said he would like to see increases in automobile fuel economy or measures to curtail carbon emissions linked to climate change, but said the votes "do not appear to be there ... especially in the House."
A need to address climate change as part of energy legislation is certain to surface once the bill reaches the Senate floor, however. "We can't afford an energy policy that does not take into account environmental and climate impact," said Bingaman.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Monday that Democrats will push for more tax breaks than GOP lawmakers have suggested, especially for renewable energy sources and technologies that reduce energy use. He called for $16 billion in energy-related tax incentives.
The House-passed bill would provided about half that much, almost all toward traditional energy industries, and the White House has called even that amount too expensive. The Senate draft bill would have about $11 billion in tax incentives, according to GOP aides, although the Finance Committee, which is working on an energy tax package, has not yet provided details.
Domenici said he expects the non-tax provisions to be forwarded by his panel to the full Senate before the Memorial Day congressional recess.
Senators are considering incentives for biodiesel, which can be made from various sources like soybeans and discarded vegetable oil, as well as a requirement for refineries to use more corn-based ethanol in gasoline.
Other provisions in the draft bill that have solid bipartisan support would:
--Require that the president implement measures that would reduce the nation's demand for oil by 1 million barrels below currently expected 2015 levels. The House rejected such a proposal.
--Expand the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to 1 billion barrels, from the current 700 million barrels. The House passed an identical requirement.
--Authorize a rebate program, costing as much as $50 million over five years, for the purchase of energy efficient appliances and direct new efficiency standards for more than a dozen products from home ceiling fans to commercial refrigerator.
--Impose mandatory reliability standards on operators of electricity grids, replacing the industry's self-regulation.
Source: Associated Press