Soft vs. hard energy path: the political lines harden

House was set to pass a bill Thursday that supporters say will boost supplies, but critics worry about smog and ANWR.

There's nothing like paying $2.50 per gallon at the gas pump to shift your attention to energy issues. And that may be especially true of politicians faced with grumbling constituents tired of forking out wads of cash to fill 'er up.

In Washington this week, President Bush and lawmakers of both parties are pushing their energy agendas. Mr. Bush, who began developing his still-languishing energy strategy shortly after he took office in 2001, prodded Congress to "get a bill to my desk before the summer recess."

The measure debated before the full House of Representatives Wednesday and Thursday - with passage expected Thursday afternoon - contains much of what Bush wants. But critics say it's also filled with unnecessary subsidies, over-reliance on nonrenewable resources like oil and coal, and an overall philosophy that even Energy Department economic analysts say won't significantly reduce dependence on foreign oil or affect the price at the pump.

The road to a new comprehensive energy program has been a long, hard slog.

"Traditionally, energy legislation has been contentious, and, in fact, major energy legislation has not been passed since 1992," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said this week in an online White House forum.

The House of Representatives has passed energy bills the past four years, but the measures have stalled in the Senate. One main issue there was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. With their increased Senate majority after the most recent election, and having attached ANWR to a budget resolution, thereby avoiding a filibuster by Democrats, Republicans are likely to be able to overcome that roadblock this session. And in the House, even Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, says the ability of Republican leaders to enforce party discipline there is "very impressive."

But that does not make the bill discussed in the House this week a sure thing for presidential signature.

Several environmental issues remain contentious. For one, the bill protects makers of MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive that pollutes groundwater, from product liability lawsuits. Environmentalists say that would leave some 140 communities with billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Another provision of the bill would extend the deadline for major metropolitan areas to meet national health-related standards for ozone, or smog. "If this provision became law, it would be the biggest weakening of the Clean Air Act in decades," says Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.

Some officials worry about provisions they say would preempt state authority on things like setting efficiency standards for some appliances, construction and expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, and granting permits for new electrical transmission lines.

Budget hawks as well as environmentalists have concerns about the bill.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington, describes the House bill as "a virtual wish list for the energy industry."

"With a $90 billion price tag, Americans have every reason to be concerned about this bill's effect on their pocketbooks," the group warned this week. "The bill contains $5.8 billion for the ethanol industry, $1.8 billion for the deceptively named Clean Coal Power Initiative, and hundreds of millions of dollars for the research and development of the next generation of nuclear reactors."

Mounting subsidies in the energy bill apparently have the White House worried as well, particularly with some oil companies enjoying record profits tied to sky-high prices for crude oil. "Oil and gas companies don't need any incentives when the price of oil is where it is right now," administration spokesman Scott McClellan said this week. The administration prefers that such incentives be directed more toward renewable energy and efficiency.

There's a national security dimension to the debate as well.

Bush and much of Congress stress the need for more domestic petroleum production to offset the growing dependence on overseas sources (now totaling nearly 60 percent). "The more oil we can produce at home in environmentally sensitive ways, the less dependent we are on foreign sources of energy," Mr. Bush said in a speech Wednesday to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Others - including some prominent conservatives - see a need to radically reduce US consumption as a quicker way toward energy independence.

In a letter to Bush recently, 26 former national security officials (including former CIA chief James Woolsey and Reagan-era national security advisor Robert McFarlane) joined with environmental advocates in calling for "a major new initiative to curtail US consumption through improved efficiency and the rapid development and deployment of advanced biomass, alcohol and other available petroleum fuel alternatives."

That likely would mean stiffer fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and trucks. Mandating better gas mileage is something - so far, at least - that may be even more discomforting to politicians than $2.50 for a gallon of gas.

The challenge with any comprehensive energy bill is that, as Energy Secretary Bodman acknowledged earlier this year, it's "not going to have any short-term impact on energy prices that's meaningful."

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