The Senate Speaks on Energy

March 09, 1992

To get an energy bill through the Senate, Louisiana Democrat J. Bennett Johnston was forced to abandon two hotly contested amendments -- one to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and another to stiffen fuel-efficiency standards for autos. On the way, he and co-sponsor Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyoming, managed to overcome opposition to easing the licensing procedure for nuclear plants and to finesse opposition to loosening regulation of electric power markets.

That doesn't get the proposals out of the woods, however. The House bill contains no such one-stop licensure proposals for nuclear plants. Expect vociferous lobbying against efforts to keep it in any conference settlement. And divisions in the utility industry mean provisions to slacken the reins on wholesale electricity sales and on utilities building plants outside their local transmission areas will be met by a chorus of conflicting voices.

One immediate objection consumer groups will raise is over how to keep regulated monopolies from using ratepayers' dollars to build plants for unregulated sales in other areas. The present system, which was loosened to allow non-utilities to sell power to utility grids, has already permitted some utility investments in such out-of-area plants. Can strong protections be built into a final bill to protect captive ratepayers? Especially when President Bush is pushing relaxation of regulations that hamper industrial expansion?

Analysts have noted the softness of the bill's proposals on energy savings by utilities. California has in place a plan expected to furnish three-quarters of new electricity demand from conservation, a deep contrast to the Senate's modest federal initiatives. And some 41 states, including Maryland, have or are working on programs to make it pay for utilities to invest in efficiency instead of simply expanding generating capacity.

Setting national efficiency standards for electric lamps and motors is a good idea. It won't shake up the OPEC countries, but it does help. And keeping environmental protections for hydroelectric projects and natural gas pipelines is another. Finally, the provision for more use of natural gas, alcohol and electricity for auto propulsion should help spur development of more competitive alternate-fuel vehicles. But don't look for a major push here. In an election year, contentious issues are clearly taking a back seat to passing an energy bill.

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