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Oil cost stokes push for policy

Congress begins work Tuesday on a bill to boost production and conservation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2005


For a generation Americans have commuted, heated their homes, manufactured goods, and expanded foreign trade without any major overhaul of energy policy.

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Proponents of oil exploration and conservation never went away, but their urgings were muffled by an era of relatively cheap oil.

Now the momentum is finally shifting.

With crude oil topping $55 a barrel and 55 Republicans in the US Senate - up from 50 before the November elections - major energy legislation now appears much more likely to pass than it did even a year ago.

Monday oil traded briefly above a new high of $58 a barrel. Prospects ranging from terrorist attacks on critical oil facilities in the Middle East to soaring prices at US gas pumps this summer have rattled Wall Street and are giving new urgency to efforts backed by President Bush and key lawmakers.

It remains uncertain how those efforts will play out. But as a House committee begins to mark up its bill Tuesday, a range of options, from drilling in Alaskan wilderness to expanding conservation efforts, are politically possible, thanks in part to new coalitions of business, conservation, and national-security groups.

"Oil prices are at record highs and every day we grow more dependent on foreign sources of oil," says Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

This marks the third Congress that has attempted to pass an energy bill in the Bush presidency. Each time, bills cleared the GOP-controlled House but failed in negotiations with the Senate over issues such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or immunity for groundwater polluters.

But the new party balance in the Senate, as well as pressure from new alliances of interest groups, could tip the balance.

A first sign of the new calculus on Capitol Hill came last month, as the Senate voted 51-49 to open the ANWR to oil and gas drilling. Four of those votes came from newly elected GOP senators who replaced Democrats who opposed drilling in the Alaskan refuge. That doesn't represent final approval for this measure, but by attaching the ANWR proposal to the fiscal 2006 budget resolution, Republican leaders hope to avoid the filibusters that derailed such legislation in the past.

At the same time, the possibility that some crisis could push petroleum prices still higher, even to $100 a barrel, is fueling pressure for more serious conservation proposals to curb petroleum use.

The real cost of oil isn't just the prices paid at the pump, but also some $400 billion to support US military presence in the Middle East - and the constant threat of disruptions in that region, critics say.

"People are starting to wake up to the fact that we do have a problem with oil revenues being used to support instability and terrorism around the world. That's making the politics more favorable toward fuel efficiency," says Jim Presswood, energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.