Critical US energy bill crafted in secrecy

Action on GOP-drawn measure involving oil, gas, nuclear could come as early as Friday.

The massive energy bill taking final shape behind closed doors on Capitol Hill this week began in controversy and is heading into more of it.

Secrecy on energy issues began years ago when Vice President Cheney's energy task force met behind closed doors - a controversial process still being debated in the courts.

Now the two Republican chairmen in charge of the energy packages from the House and Senate are behind closed doors again - this time to rewrite the bill themselves without input from Democrats and other critics.

The process defies convention in this capital city.

What's known so far is that if the bill becomes law it would bring about several important changes. It would seek to:

• Open protected federal lands to exploration and drilling.

• Revive the nuclear power industry.

• Inventory offshore drilling sites from Florida to California.

• Open huge natural-gas reserves on Alaska's North Slope.

Republicans say their closed-door process is the only way to wrest a bill out of a Congress that is deeply divided on energy issues. They say the result will produce American jobs, keep energy prices low, and ease dependence on foreign oil.

But the speed and secrecy of this process is raising concerns not only in the Congress, but also from many groups watching intently from the outside. On Wednesday, Democratic members of the conference protested their "partisan exclusion" from key negotiations, and said it could seriously jeopardize chances for an energy bill.

"This is clearly no way to do an energy bill that is going to be in the public interest," says Pete Rafle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, which opposes the current bill. He adds: "They are loading up this bill with a seemingly endless litany of disastrous provisions for public lands elsewhere."

Typically, environmental groups have been able to rely on friendly (usually Democratic) staffers to keep them in the loop on how talks between Senate and House negotiators are proceeding. But this time, Democratic conferees have also been on the outside, as Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate energy committees, work out titles of the energy bill in secret. The chairmen first release these drafts to GOP colleagues, then to Democrats and the press.

Republicans say the discussions over these drafts are "bipartisan negotiations." Democrats say they are only listening sessions, part of a "flawed process" that is producing a giveaway to special interests. Recently, Democratic staff and environmental activists have taken to slipping into majority staff press briefings to find out what's going on in the conference.

The last energy bill died in conference during the 107th Congress, after protracted and difficult negotiations. "There were too many meetings, too many offers and counteroffers," said chairman Tauzin on the opening day of the energy conference last month - the last open meeting until conferees are convened to sign an agreement. That's why the two chairmen need to work out a draft themselves, before releasing it for discussion, he said. "All views will be considered fully."

The route to conference was also highly unusual. After failing to win support for their own version of an energy bill, Senate Republicans agreed to revote the bill that passed in the 107th Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate. But Senator Domenici quickly noted that he would rewrite the bill with Tauzin in conference, and he has.

Already, important elements of the Senate-passed bill have dropped out of the conference draft. This includes a popular plan to require power companies to meet annual targets for increasing their use of renewable fuels, including wind, solar, biomass and hydro. On Monday, 53 senators signed a letter calling on the conferees to restore this so-called renewable portfolio standard. Electric utilities oppose the mandate. Other no-shows are higher CAFE (gas mileage) standards for automobiles and light trucks and big tax breaks for renewable energy.

Last week, some 20 senators from the Northeast and Midwest called for the conference not to delay a plan by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to promote wholesale power exchanges, called the Standard Market Design. Southern senators say the plan will penalize their ratepayers and won a pledge from Domenici and the White House to delay the plan.

But the most controversial elements of the new energy plan concern the effort to open protected areas to exploration and drilling. The draft energy bill includes a provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Domenici says he will pull that provision if he is unable to break a filibuster.

Some of the toughest parts of the bill, including ethanol, electricity, and tax provisions, are still being worked out.

Another proposal to inventory offshore resources along protected coastlines is also stirring opposition from coastal states.

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