An Energy Potpourri

THE most ambitious and wide-ranging energy legislation in a decade has finally made it through both houses of Congress. It is now in conference committee, where differences between the Senate and House versions will be reconciled before the bill goes to President Bush's desk.

This legislation includes much that makes sense: It will overhaul the electric-utility industry, provide some incentives for natural gas production and use, steer the country toward vehicles that run on alternative fuels, and encourage stronger energy-efficiency standards in appliances and buildings.

But the legislation also includes much that angers various interest groups.

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Environmentalists, for example, would have liked to see tougher mileage standards imposed on automakers. On the other hand, they won a major victory by preventing drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and extending the moratorium on new offshore oil and gas exploration.

Opponents of nuclear power abhor provisions in the bill that do away with public hearings on plant safety after construction.

The oil and gas industries, meanwhile, bristle over the restrictions on offshore exploration. But independent producers were awarded tax breaks that should provide some boost to domestic oil and gas supplies. Critics of the legislation grumble, however, that the provision that could really have bolstered energy independence - mandatory filling of the strategic petroleum reserve - was axed.

Some of these concerns will surface anew in the conference process, but it's unlikely that the basic package will be undone.

One big gap between the House and Senate versions involves access to utility transmission lines for independent power producers, including those using renewable sources like solar and wind. The House included this forward-looking measure, and it ought to be preserved - but it faces opposition in the Senate.

The process that led to the energy bill of 1992 began three years ago when President Bush authorized Energy Secretary James Watkins to devise a national energy strategy. The administration's early plans were nearly devoid of conservation measures. But sponsors in Congress, particularly Sen. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, toiled for more balanced legislation.

What has emerged is a potpourri that may completely satisfy no one. But it's a lot better than no energy strategy at all.

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