In a power bar of a bill, the Senate tackles energy
This week's agenda spans fuel cells and clean coal, but environmentalists still fret.
WASHINGTON — With 392 possible amendments in the wings, the Senate this week takes on the biggest overhaul of energy policy in a decade - and aims to wrap it up within a matter of days.
It's a huge and highly complex bill, covering everything from pilot programs for bicycles to the first incentives for new nuclear-power production in a quarter century. With natural-gas prices soaring, everyone agrees a new national strategy on energy is needed.
But winning consensus on such a massive bill has never been easy. The fights over energy are often regional, rather than partisan. They involve clashes among some of the most powerful corporate and environmental groups in Washington. And the process often fails of its own weight.
Unlike last year's energy bill, which was drafted on the floor of the Senate and foundered in conference, this bill is the result of carefully calibrated back-room negotiations, mainly involving GOP lawmakers.
The Senate bill includes more than $35.5 billion for research and development, including $1.7 billion for nuclear energy, $2 billion for clean coal, and $1.8 billion for President Bush's hydrogen fuel-cell initiative. It authorizes a new natural-gas pipeline from Alaska and eases permits for oil and gas exploration. At least $15.5 billion in tax incentives for energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean coal, and natural gas are expected to be added this week on the Senate floor.
Early on, Republicans ruled out issues that have been the most divisive in the past, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), although that issue could come up in final negotiations between the House and Senate. New regulations mandating the use of 5 billion gallons of renewable fuel additives in gasoline also gave the lumbering energy bill an early lift. The boost for ethanol is a high priority for corn-belt Democrats, who are now expected to support the bill.
Republicans also deliberately backed the bill up against the August recess, one of the most inflexible dates on the Senate calendar. Senate majority leader Bill Frist says he will not allow the Senate to recess without an agreement on energy. "We simply must diversify our sources of energy, and we must do so in a way that lessens our dependence on foreign sources for this energy," he said last week.
Environmental activists say it's a formula for bad legislation. "It will be very difficult to vote against an energy bill. There are lots of things in this bill that most people don't know about that need to be addressed," says Robert Perks, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the bill.
Environmentalists worry that the Senate bill, as well as the House bill, which passed last April, are too heavily weighted toward traditional polluting industries, and not enough toward renewable fuels, such as wind, waves, biomass, ethanol, solar, and geothermal power. Some two-thirds of the tax incentives in the House bill were directed toward oil, coal, and nuclear interests, they note.
In addition, new measures to expedite permits for oil exploration and drilling on public lands will cut the public out of the process and increase destruction, they say. "The Senate should scrap the energy bill and come back with more 21st-century solutions, especially raising fuel-economy standards: That step would save more oil than we currently import from the Persian Gulf and could ever take out of ANWR and the California outer continental shelf combined," says Brendan Bell of the Sierra Club.
Staff Democrats concede they may not have the votes to block an energy bill this year or even the will to do so. But they insist the issues are sufficiently complex and important to warrant more time. "Our senators have legitimate concerns and need to have an opportunity to have fair and serious consideration of their amendments. Whether we win or not is not as important as the opportunity to deliberate," says Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the minority Democrats on the Energy panel.
Here are some of the most controversial issues coming up:
• Fuel Economy Standards: In amendments likely to be debated Monday, the Senate considers whether to require higher fuel economy standards for passenger cars, light trucks, and sports utility vehicles. A Democratic proposal would raise the current corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard from 27.5 miles to 40 by 2014.
• Climate change: Democrats say a "prime weakness" of the energy bill is its failure to "acknowledge the connection between energy production/use and climate change." Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut are proposing an amendment to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which is not expected to pass.
• Electricity regulation: Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Energy panel, wants a federal mandate for electric utilities to generate up to 10 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by a specified date.