Powerful Interest Groups Complicate Swift Action on Energy in Congress

Three powerful lobbying forces -- automakers, electric utilities and the coal industry -- are confounding Democrats' efforts to forge a less-polluting energy policy.

WASHINGTON -- Three powerful lobbying forces -- automakers, electric utilities and the coal industry -- are confounding Democrats' efforts to forge a less-polluting energy policy.

Disputes over automobile fuel economy, use of coal as a motor fuel, and requirements for utilities to use more wind or biomass to generate electricity have threatened to stall energy legislation in both the Senate and House.

The issues have been the focus of intense lobbying by the coal industry, electric utilities heavily dependent on coal, and by automobile manufacturers trying to block new fuel economy requirements from Washington and in a dozen states.

In an effort to move ahead with an energy bill in the House, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Monday he is dropping a provision to boost auto fuel economy from a draft bill, along with incentives for the development of liquefied coal as a motor fuel.

He said he also was jettisoning proposals that would have blocked California and 11 other states from cutting greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, measures that had attracted the ire of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

He was postponing consideration of these issues as part of climate change legislation next fall "so we can rapidly complete work on a bipartisan (energy) bill," Dingell said in a memo to members of his Energy and Commerce Committee.

The action brought a tepid response from Pelosi, who had been at loggerheads with Dingell, a staunch supporter of the auto industry, over the coal issue and attempts to stop California's efforts on global warming.

"The Speaker has made no decision at this time" on whether to support Dingell's revised bill, said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, adding that she and Dingell were still discussing what direction energy legislation should take.

Unless agreements can be worked out in the coming days, hopes by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Pelosi to produce an energy bill before Independence Day may be dashed.

Senate Democrats this week are trying to find a way around a threatened filibuster and resurrect a proposal to require electric utilities to use more renewable fuels and spur development of wind, solar and biomass energy sources.

An intense GOP fight against the proposal has been waged largely at the behest of two of the country's biggest coal-burning electricity producers -- the Atlanta-based Southern Company and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The companies, in letters to senators, argued that the requirement to produce 15 percent of their power from renewable energy sources can't be met without huge electricity cost increases. Supporters of the measure argue that is false.

The coal industry has weighed in as well, urging support of an alternative that would have included more efficient coal-burning power plants and nuclear reactors, a plan senators rejected.

Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the lead sponsor of the renewable fuels mandate, said the senator views promotion of renewable fuels a core ingredient of a fresh energy policy. If the GOP continues to block a vote, he said, it could "unplug the whole bill."

Another imbroglio that threatens to derail Senate action centers on demands that automakers significantly improve fuel efficiency.

The automakers have unleashed an intense campaign to block a requirement already in the Senate bill that calls for new cars, SUVs and small trucks to meet an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with further annual improvements of 4 percent after that.

Dozens of car dealers and auto plant managers were making the rounds of Senate offices to lobby against the measure this week. Chief executives of the Big Three automakers recently came to Capitol Hill to tell Senate leaders the proposed requirement can't be met. Auto industry lobbyists said it would mean fuel economy would have to more than double by 2030 to a fleet average of 52 mpg.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., brandishing a letter from the auto manufacturers' lobbying group outlining its opposition to the Senate provision, plans to join several other senators close to the auto industry and offer a more modest proposal, possibly as early as Tuesday.

Automobile and coal interests also have been at the heart of some of the most divisive energy discussions in the House.

Dingell's decision Monday to scrap -- at least for the time being -- some of the House bill's most controversial provisions was a setback for the auto industry and coal companies, although Dingell said he planned to revisit them this fall when his committee takes up global warming legislation. He said the delay "will give us the needed time to achieve consensus ... if at all possible."

"There was broad opposition to these provisions," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the committee who in all likelihood will pursue auto fuel economy increases when the energy legislation reaches the House floor.

Support for development of liquefied coal has been a priority of Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., whose district is in the heart of coal country, and who is chairman of the subcommittee crafting the energy bill.

Government help to develop liquefied coal as a substitute for diesel and jet fuel has been a high priority for the coal industry. "It opens an entirely new market for coal," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.


Associated Press Writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press

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