House, Senate Take up Widely Different Energy Bills Amid Attempts to Resolve Dispute

A dispute over a gasoline additive could jeopardize hopes for an agreement as the Senate and House worked on Thursday to forge a compromise to deal with the nation's energy problems.

WASHINGTON — A dispute over a gasoline additive could jeopardize hopes for an agreement as the Senate and House worked on Thursday to forge a compromise to deal with the nation's energy problems.

Under pressure because of soaring gasoline and other fuel prices, President Bush has urged lawmakers to send him an energy bill before they depart for their summer recess in August.

Some members of Congress are skeptical about meeting that timetable.

"We're going to try," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is leading the Senate negotiations. But lawmakers, he said, don't want to rush the process and get "a shoddy bill."

The conferees met for more than 90 minutes Thursday but did not get into the substance of the legislation. They planned several more meetings next week.


The House approved its bill in April; the Senate's was passed in June.

The Senate version would direct more tax breaks to develop renewable energy sources and promote conservation. It differs sharply from the House-passed measures on issues such as drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge to mandatory use of renewable energy sources by electric utilities.

The Senate bill would cost about $17.5 billion over 10 years; the House version comes in at $8 billion. Both are more costly than the $6.7 billion total favored by the White House.

The chief disagreement, however, centers on methyl tertiary butyl ether, the gasoline additive known as MTBE.

The House bill would protect MTBE makers against liability from lawsuits stemming from the chemical's contamination of drinking water supplies in at least 36 states.

The Senate measure contains no such provision.

Dozens of senators, both Democrats and Republicans, have pledged to block any legislation that contains that MTBE plan.

Even in the House, the issue is contentious. An attempt on Thursday to direct House negotiators to abandon the MTBE provision failed, but only by a small margin, 217-201.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House-Senate negotiating conference, has sought a compromise on MTBE that the Senate might accept.

"It's absolutely imperative that we have a comprehensive national energy bill," Barton said, expressing optimism that lawmakers can settle the differences over MTBE and other issues.

The discussions over MTBE, largely among House Republicans, have focused on setting up a cleanup fund for state and communities where MTBE water contamination has been found.

It also would strengthen an existing program intended to repair or remove leaking underground tanks at gasoline stations. But it would still shield MTBE manufactures from product liability suits.

Barton has given no details about the discussions. "There is no deal yet," said Lisa Miller, a Barton spokeswoman.

But even as a general framework of a compromise has surfaced, it has been just as quickly dismissed by critics of the liability provision.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has said he has yet to hear anything that would ease his concerns. His state's suit against MTBE makers would be nullified by the House bill.

The fund could have as much as $8 billion, according to some accounts, and be funded by taxpayers and MTBE makers and distributors. But such a fund will not address the MTBE contamination that (communities) ... face today or may face in the future," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif.

Capps cites various estimates that the cost of MTBE cleanup could reach $33 billion, both in existing and future pollution.

Barton dismisses such estimates and says if they were true, "most of the money is trial lawyer contingency fees" arising from the lawsuits. Barton cites industry estimates that actual cleanup costs could be a little as $2 billion.

Source: Associated Press