Calls grow louder in Congress to revamp US energy policy

Everybody, it seems, is scrambling to remake America's energy policy – proposing ways to reduce US dependence on foreign oil while addressing the environmental aspects of energy production, distribution, and use.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, touting a raft of proposals, have declared this to be "energy week." Governors around the country have entered the fray, some with suits against the government for energy-related pollution. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just approved what will be the first license for a commercial nuclear facility in 30 years.

But the real push for revamping energy policy – just a year after the US enacted its first major energy bill in more than a decade – is coming from the grass-roots and lobbyists. Citizen groups and special interests are pushing for solutions as fuel prices remain high and turmoil continues in oil-rich parts of the world.

"There's tremendous pressure to do something," says Sierra Club energy specialist Melinda Pierce.

In all, 477 energy-related bills have been introduced in this Congress, according to a New York Times report. But many of those proposals involve increasing domestic energy production rather than the conservation and renewables that environmentalists prefer.

For example: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week is hearing testimony on oil and gas drilling in the Rocky Mountain region and on the permitting process for new refineries.

In the House of Representatives, legislation lifting the 25-year moratorium on off-shore drilling passed the resources committee 29-9 last week, and is expected to face a full House vote Thursday.

"Studies indicate that natural gas from the Outer Continental Shelf [OCS] could provide the US with about 25 years of natural gas supply," says Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

Environmentalists say the industry already has access to most OCS gas resources. They warn of erosion of state jurisdiction and pollution disasters.

"We're going to do everything we can to stop it," says Ms. Pierce of the Sierra Club.

Other legislation is meant to fill in the blanks or change certain features of the heavily compromised bill enacted last year.

The recently proposed bipartisan "Enhanced Energy Security Act" would speed up the development of new vehicle technologies such as plug-in hybrids; provide loan guarantees and grants to auto and parts manufacturers converting to fuel-efficient vehicles; increase funding for gas stations that sell alternatives such as E85 (which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline); and provide incentives for production of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from agricultural plant waste, sawdust, switch grass, and other substances, rather than corn or other grains.

Other lawmakers are pushing a different kind of energy future.

Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts outlined in Boston Monday what he called "the three big steps that are imperative to addressing global warming and transitioning to dependence on homegrown sources of energy."

Mr. Kerry's plan includes freezing greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, then reducing those to 65 percent below 2000 levels by 2050; mandatory reductions in US oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day by 2015 (the amount currently imported from the Persian Gulf); and "immediately" expanding the production of renewable vehicle fuel.

In the states, some governors are coming up with their own plans, banding together to promote more energy conservation and efficiency than the federal government requires. In the West especially, governors of both parties are pushing wind energy.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a license for construction of the $1.5 billion enriched uranium manufacturing facility. It "will mean ... the renaissance of nuclear energy in this country," says Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico.

Even the US Supreme Court has jumped on the issue, agreeing this week to consider a case involving greenhouse gases (most of which come from motor vehicles and power plants).

In a way, the story is not new. "As national policy obsessions go, America's oil dependence has been one of our most enduring," Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

How many of those 477 energy-related bills introduced in this Congress get serious consideration is another matter.

"Time is running out in this Congress to take action on energy," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico said in introducing the Enhanced Energy Security Act. The summer break looms, then campaigning for the November election.

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