Out of gas

November 28, 2003

THE MORNING after a holiday that encourages excess may be just the time to contemplate the dangers of loading the plate too full.

Overreaching -- unchecked greed, pure and simple -- is what toppled the $31 billion energy bill just before a final vote capping years of effort and negotiation.

"A classic example of more than the traffic would bear," observed Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who was nonetheless among the 58 senators willing to support the measure because of a personal stake in its special interest provisions.

It's heartening to learn that even in this free-spending, budget-discipline-be-damned era, Congress has some limits. Perhaps there's reason to hope it can reconvene next year to shape a much more restrained proposal that actually enhances energy security instead of just lining the pockets of energy producers.

So much about the measure was so bad, it's hard to pick which provision was worst. But top among the candidates would be the audacious favors provided for makers and users of the fuel-additive MTBE.

An oxygenate that helps gas burn cleaner and more efficiently, MTBE is also a foul-smelling and possibly cancer-causing contaminant that has polluted the well water in at least 35 states, including Maryland. Environmentalists say oil companies have known of these dangers for years, but used MTBE anyway because it is the cheapest way to meet federal requirements for cleaner fuels.

Yet the energy bill would have protected oil and chemical companies from lawsuits seeking help with cleanup costs, voided such a suit already filed by the state of New Hampshire, delayed until 2015 a federal ban on MTBE, and given MTBE producers $2 billion to switch to safer products.

Such sweetheart treatment at the expense of local taxpayers pushed New Hampshire's two Republican senators into the opposition camp, and several others as well. Yet House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is more attuned to the concerns of Texas oil companies, refused to consider dropping the protections from MTBE lawsuits--even if it would have meant getting the rest of the measure enacted.

Mr. DeLay may have assumed there was no need to yield, that sooner or later the right combination of additional favors would be found to acquire the few votes he was short.

But the momentum from last summer's power blackout has been lost, in part because this so-called energy proposal failed to meet even its modest promise of ensuring reliability of the electricity grid.

Lawmakers should move quickly next year to address that bit of urgent business, and then refrain from boasting of a broader energy strategy until they actually have one.

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