'Getting to yes' diminished energy bill

Alaska drilling rights and an overhaul of car-pollution standards aren't in the measure, but many items are.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The energy bill emerging this week in Congress is a classic example of the politics of the possible.

President Bush didn't get his wish of opening Alaska wildlands to drilling or coastal waters to exploration. Democrats didn't put the brakes on gas guzzlers on the highway or force power companies to move more quickly into renewable energy sources. And a devastating blackout that hit much of the Northeast and Midwest late this summer didn't prompt the sweeping regulatory changes that some analysts say are needed to ensure the reliability of the nation's electric grid.

What negotiators did knit together is a bill that, while broad in scope, was carefully crafted to be able to pass the Senate, where a determined minority can bottle up a bill indefinitely.

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"Obviously, we have finally gotten to the point after years of wrangling that we are going to have a bill or we are not going to have a bill," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, opening a House-Senate conference on the final terms of the energy bill.

While alarming to environmental and consumer groups, the bill that surfaced after 71 days of negotiation also falls short of the agenda for energy security proposed by industry groups early in the process.

Even though Democrats were shut out of drafting this bill - and all but denied a chance to amend it - the prospect of 40 senators angry enough at one feature of the bill to block all of it forced tough choices. That's why, in the end, the plan to open up drilling in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge was dropped. So were plans to survey protected areas off the east and west coasts.

Democrats vigorously objected to the way they were treated in the process, including having only two days to read and critique 1,100 pages of complex text. But GOP negotiators also aimed to build just enough incentives for individual Democrats into the bill to ensure passage. Political scientists call it a "minimal winning coalition" strategy. On Capitol Hill, it's just called the "Christmas tree" approach.

"A lot of Democrats have been coming to me and saying that [GOP negotiators] have told them: 'Don't build up your opposition. ... We're going to take care of your pet rock,'" says Sen. Jeff Bingaman, ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, who voted against the bill.

At the heart of the bill are some $20 billion in subsidies and incentives for energy producers, especially the oil and gas industry. These include reduced royalty payments for "deep well" and "deep water" oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico, expected to cost some $95 million in the first 10 years. It is a boon to Louisiana, with its two Democratic senators.

The package offers royalty relief to owners of marginal oil and gas wells, which could cover some 80 percent of all wells on federal lands. The plan also includes production tax credits to build up to four light-water nuclear reactors.

But the chief ornament on the "Christmas tree" is a requirement to add five billion gallons per year of ethanol and other renewable-based fuel to the nation's gasoline by 2012. It's a top priority for cornbelt senators, including Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

"The energy bill is sweetened with a few renewable energy provisions, but the overwhelming bitter taste of business as usual remains," says Gregory Wetstone, chief lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It means exempting polluters from laws that ensure clean water and healthy air."

One of the most controversial features still in the bill is the decision to block litigation on a toxic gasoline additive called MTBE, found to contaminate groundwater. The waiver was a top priority of House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, both representing districts that produce MTBE. Critics call it corporate welfare.

"The MTBE liability waiver is a $29 billion rip-off for consumers, taxpayers, and property owners. Never has so much been given to so few at the expense of so many," says Ken Cool, president of the non profit Environment Working Group. Democrats are also considering a filibuster over a provision added in conference that would postpone deadlines in the Clean Air Act.

Says Peter VanDoren, an energy analyst at the Cato Institute: "There are so many deals in this bill it will take analysts months to figure it all out."

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