U.S. Senate Begins Debate on Energy Bill on Tuesday
WASHINGTON The Senate was set to take up a broad, $11 billion energy bill on Tuesday, with lawmakers racing the clock to get a final version to the White House this summer.
The legislation aims to boost long-term domestic oil, natural gas and gasoline production, make the U.S. electric grid more reliable and build more nuclear power plants.
The bill also seeks to reduce U.S. addiction to foreign oil, which now accounts for close to 60 percent of domestic petroleum demand.
Senate Democrats plan to offer an amendment to the bill that would require the government to find ways to cut U.S. import dependence by 40 percent in 20 years. That goes beyond the bill's current call to reduce U.S. oil demand of about 20 million barrels per day by 1 million bpd by 2015.
U.S. companies can use existing technologies like hybrid cars, biodiesel and other farm-derived fuels to make the cut, Senate Democrats said.
"When you have a dangerous addiction, it's time for an intervention," Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said. He has pushed for Congress to require U.S. refiners to double the use of corn-blended ethanol, a boon to his state's farm economy.
President Bush asked Congress to send him an energy bill before lawmakers adjourn for their summer recess around Aug. 1.
However, senior staff at the Senate Energy Committee said they won't commit to wrapping up work on a final energy bill by that date, because it may difficult, if not impossible, to work out major differences in the Senate and House energy bills.
The House of Representatives approved an $8 billion energy package in April with several contentious provisions that could be filibustered in the Senate.
Those differences will have to be worked out in a Senate-House conference committee.
Unlike the Senate's bill, the House legislation would allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Senate Republicans prefer to include ANWR drilling language in the government's massive annual budget bill, which can't be filibustered.
A much bigger problem for the Senate is the House bill's measure to protect oil companies from certain lawsuits for making the water-polluting MTBE gasoline additive. House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas insists that U.S. refiners must be shielded from defective-product lawsuits.
MTBE liability measures doomed a previous energy bill in the Senate last year and could do so again, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said.
"If there is no liability (for MTBE makers), there won't be a bill," Reid said. "We feel very strongly about that."
U.S. refiners began adding MTBE to gasoline in 1979 as an anti-knock agent that replaced lead, but MTBE has seeped into water supplies in all 50 states through leaky storage tanks, rendering the water undrinkable.
Amendments are expected on requiring more electricity to be generated by renewable energy sources; allowing states to open closed offshore waters for oil and gas drilling; and fighting global warming.
The Senate Finance Committee will also tack on to the bill a multibillion-dollar package of energy tax breaks and financial incentives, which could be more than the double the $6.7 billion cap the White House wants in the bill.