Storms revive energy debate

US officials consider new as well as old ideas in the wake of hurricanes and rising fuel costs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been just seven weeks since President Bush finally was able to sign a comprehensive energy bill. It had taken five years and a lot of compromising. But in the wake of back-to-back hurricanes that battered the Gulf Coast, damaged oil refineries, and boosted already-high gas prices, lawmakers and special interests are scrambling to amend - if not rewrite - US energy policy.

Some proposals have been dusted off in the wake of Katrina and Rita. But new or old, they all have an added urgency to them. Among them: lifting the ban on oil and gas exploration and development on the Outer Continental Shelf, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, toughening auto mileage standards, expediting permits for new refineries by loosening air quality regulations, and giving the federal government the final word on where refineries and crude-oil pipelines should go.

Is the political landscape changing?

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Four years ago, as head of the White House task force on energy, Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed conservation as "a sign of personal virtue ... not a basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

This week, Mr. Bush urged Americans to conserve fuel supplies, saying Uncle Sam should set an example. "We can encourage employees to carpool or use mass transit," he said. "There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."

Still, the former Texas oilman seems a long way from former President Jimmy Carter, who, during the 1970s oil crisis, put solar collectors on the White House roof and wore sweaters when it got cold.

Bush's main interest isin increasing supply, not in curbing demand. That is also true of most of the bills moving through the Republican-dominated Congress. "If there is a silver lining in this, it is that it may finally bring home to the American people how fragile our energy sector is and our energy infrastructure is," Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on proposing his bill.

Among other things, Mr. Barton's proposal - the "Gasoline for America's Security Act of 2005" - would ease the restrictions on where refineries and oil pipelines may be built, designate certain closed military bases as refinery sites, and change certain requirements under the Clean Air Act applying to refineries and power plants when older facilities are upgraded.

No new US oil refineries have been built since 1976, and the idea here is to increase domestic refinery output so that capacity, now at 17 million barrels per day, more nearly matches average demand, which is 21 million barrels per day. Another oil state lawmaker, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahom., who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, this week put forth a similar bill in the Senate.

"Twenty-five percent of our oil production is in the Gulf of Mexico," Bartonsaid when introducing that bill. "It doesn't have to be that way. We could be drilling in Alaska right now. We could be drilling off the coasts of several other states."

Industry sources laud the Barton bill as "far-reaching," according to a statement byBob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

Others are far more wary.

"What's really reprehensible is that friends of the oil industry in Congress are using ... a disaster, which essentially pointed up our shortcomings in protecting public health and safety, to repeal environmental rules that are designed to protect public health and safety," says Dave Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.

"The current lack of oil refinery capacity is largely the result of a conscious decision by the oil industry in the 1990s to limit supply to increase profitability," says Mr. Hamilton. "In the 1990s, approximately 50 refineries were closed, and since 1995, over 20 refineries have been shut down."

"We too are very, very concerned about the impact of high gasoline prices on people," agrees Kevin Curtis, vice-president of the National Environmental Trust. "There are some steps that can and should be taken.... But waiving the Clean Air Act is not one of them. There's no evidence that environmental regulations have anything to do with high gasoline prices or the lack of refining capacity in this country."

Related to this are long-standing concerns about "environmental justice" - the disproportionate health effects refineries and other petrochemical plants often have on the poor and minorities.

"In the heavily populated Los Angeles air basin, over 71 percent of African-Americans and 50 percent of Latinos live in areas with the most polluted air, compared to 34 percent of whites," Rep. Hilda Solis of Calif., senior Democrat on the House subcommittee dealing with environment and hazardous materials, said in an opening statement on the markup of the Barton bill Wednesday.

Others point to what they see as the failings of the recently passed $11.5 billion, 10-year energy bill, made worse by problems caused by the hurricanes. They see the current situation as an opportunity to rectify that.

"The Energy Policy Act of 2005 did nothing to reduce our dependency on foreign oil or relieve the burden of consumers at the pump," Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Mass, said at a press conference earlier this week.

Markey is part of a bipartisan group of House members that recently introduced legislation raising vehicle fuel-efficiency standards from 25 miles per gallon to 33 miles per gallon over the next 10 years.

Pointing out that the measure could be saving 2.6 million barrels of oil a day by 2025, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York said, "This bill, more so than any provision in the recently-enacted energy bill, will lessen that dependence."

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