Overhaul of energy strategy passed

House gives approval to 1st major revamping of policy in a decade

April 12, 2003|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The House approved a major energy bill yesterday, handing President Bush a victory on a key domestic issue he has called critical to economic growth and national security.

Against the backdrop of a war that put the spotlight on U.S. oil imports from foreign sources, the 247-175 vote signaled the Republican-controlled Congress' determination to complete the first major overhaul of national energy policy in more than a decade.

"This bill is great for America," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican and one of the bill's authors. "During this time of war and energy instability, it is more critical than ever that we update our energy infrastructure to keep America safe and our power supply strong."

Democrats complained that the bill, which includes $18 billion in tax breaks - many of which would benefit the oil and gas industries - is skewed too much toward promoting production over conservation. "This is an oil company bill," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat. "It's oil, oil, oil. It has a greasy feeling to it."

Bush praised the House for passing a "balanced" bill, calling the vote "a major step forward in the effort to secure our nation's energy future.

The Senate could pass its version of energy legislation as early as next month, paving the way for talks expected to lead to a final bill sent to Bush for his signature.

"It's fairly likely that [an energy bill] will pass the Congress this session simply because politicians on both sides of the aisle and in both ideological camps want to be able to tell voters that they've done something to promote energy independence and environmentally friendly energy sources," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute.

The House bill contains many initiatives taken from an energy plan the administration unveiled two years ago. These include authorizing $1.6 billion to develop technologies that would reduce pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants.

But the White House expressed concern about the bill's $18 billion in tax breaks to spur more energy production and conservation - a figure more than double the amount favored by the administration.

Also, Bush seems unlikely to achieve his prized initiative of opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. The House bill includes the drilling provision, but the Senate voted last month to strip it from a different bill. The proposal is widely seen as doomed for the year.

Nor is the bill's final version expected to include new fuel-economy standards for motor vehicles, a provision sought by many Democrats. The House on Thursday rejected a proposal to raise standards for all vehicles to 30 miles per gallon by 2010. Currently, fleets of light trucks - including sport-utility vehicles, minivans and pickups - must meet an average of 20.7 mpg, due to rise to 22.2 mpg for the 2007 model year. The average for cars is 27.5 mpg.

A main aim of the House bill is to reduce oil imports, which account for more than half of U.S. oil consumption, up from 36 percent in 1973. Lawmakers debating the bill this week made note of the 600,000 barrels of day imported from Iraq under the United Nations' oil-for-food program. "The war in Iraq has once again highlighted the importance of ensuring America's energy independence," said Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican.

The 768-page bill includes a measure, popular in the politically important Midwest, to double the amount of corn-based ethanol that would have to be added to the nation's gasoline supply by 2015. Ethanol advocates say the additive is a cleaner-burning, home-grown alternative to foreign oil.

The bill would enlarge the nation's emergency stockpile of oil, and promote building a $20 billion pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska to the lower 48 states. Addressing problems spotlighted by California's electricity crisis, the bill would prohibit trading practices used by energy companies to drive up the price of power and boost to $1 million the fine for violating federal laws governing power markets.

It also would extend a cap on the nuclear industry's liability in accidents. Also, it would authorize nearly $32 billion for energy research, including $1.8 billion for Bush's initiative to develop hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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