Energy bill set by GOP leaders

Broad measure creates electric reliability rules

U.S. production of oil, gas urged

Approval possible soon, but some Democrats wary

November 15, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - House and Senate Republicans agreed yesterday on a sweeping energy measure that contains billions of dollars in incentives for domestic production of oil and natural gas, creates mandatory reliability standards for electric utilities, and doubles the use of the cleaner-burning fuel additive ethanol within the next decade.

Enactment of the energy plan - the first of its kind in nearly a decade, and the subject of months of intense wrangling among lawmakers and warring energy interests - would be a major win for President Bush, who has listed it among his highest priorities.

Final approval of the bill could come as early as next week, but the measure still faces obstacles, including a possible filibuster by Democrats.

The agreement is similar to the Bush administration's wish list for a national energy policy, which was fleshed out by a much-criticized task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney. The group met in private sessions and encouraged increased exploration for and production of traditional fossil fuels with billions of dollars in incentives for the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries.

"We've succeeded," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He predicted "a strong surge" of public pressure for Congress to approve the measure.

Republicans dropped a provision in the bill championed by Bush that had alienated environmentalists and stymied agreement on past energy plans: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Republicans said they omitted the provision after determining that there was enough opposition in the Senate to kill the entire bill if it were included. The provision for using more corn-based ethanol is designed to win votes from Midwestern senators, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

But the measure is still likely to meet stiff opposition from many Democrats, who have not been invited to participate in the final talks and have argued that the bill does not put enough emphasis on conservation and alternative fuels. It faces a possible filibuster in the Senate, although it was not clear yesterday whether antipathy among Democrats was widespread enough to spell trouble for the final package.

"We're being asked to take it or leave it," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the senior Democrat on the energy panel.

Republicans plan to release the text of the 1,700-page bill today, hoping to move it to congressional negotiating committees Monday, to the House floor Tuesday, and to final approval by the Senate on Wednesday. They shared the outlines of the measure with reporters yesterday.

The bill includes provisions to encourage the building of new transmission lines for strained electricity grids across the nation, establishes new energy efficiency requirements, and offers tax breaks for the production of renewable energy sources like wind, Domenici said.

The Bush administration praised Congress yesterday for nearing completion of the measure, which Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called "a comprehensive and balanced energy bill that reflects the president's energy priorities and will be an important investment in ensuring America's energy security and economic vitality."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan offered only mild remarks about the exclusion of drilling in the Arctic refuge. "We continue to believe it should be part of a comprehensive energy plan," he said. "We recognize that there is always give-and-take in the legislative process."

The bill includes incentives for the construction of a $20 billion natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to Chicago. The idea of the pipeline - which would tap huge, readily accessible reserves discovered during oil drilling - has drawn few objections, especially at a time when natural gas prices are high.

"This is, in essence, a jobs bill," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Tauzin listed several provisions in the measure, including the Alaska pipeline and various incentives for energy production, that he said would create hundreds of thousands of jobs to help the economy.

Proponents say electricity provisions included in the energy measure will reduce the nation's risk of another blackout like the one that struck the Northeast and Midwest on Aug. 14.

The measure would require electric utilities to meet reliability standards that had been only voluntary. It also includes incentives to encourage the building of power lines - something that has lagged in recent years because of confusion and contention among utilities about who would benefit from such investments.

"We are hopeful that what we've done will, over time, minimize, if not avoid, blackouts like the one we had in New York," Domenici said.

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