House Republicans offer compromise in energy bill debate

Multibillion-dollar fund would support cleanup of MTBE-tainted water

July 23, 2005|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In a bid to remove the chief stumbling block to passage of long-debated energy legislation, House Republicans proposed yesterday the creation of a multibillion-dollar fund to pay for cleaning up water supplies fouled by a gasoline additive.

The energy bill was thwarted two years ago largely because of a dispute over methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, a fuel additive credited with helping reduce smog but blamed for contaminating water supplies across the country.

White House officials and lawmakers from both parties have been hopeful that rising gasoline prices and growing concern about U.S. dependence on foreign oil have created momentum for an energy bill to clear Congress this year. And the proposed cleanup fund represents the most aggressive effort yet to reach an agreement on the MTBE issue.

More negotiating appears necessary, however. The proposed compromise failed to move at least one of the targeted senators: Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who dismissed it as "more smoke and gas brought to you by Big Oil."

New Hampshire is among the states with contaminated water supplies.

Gregg's response showed that the White House is likely to have to become more involved in trying to settle the dispute, which again threatens to doom the sweeping energy legislation. Overhauling the nation's energy policy has been a priority for President Bush since 2001.

The energy bill, which includes several provisions designed to address high energy prices, passed the House in 2003 but fell two votes short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. A bipartisan group of senators objected to a House-backed provision that would have protected producers of MTBE from pollution-related lawsuits.

This year's House-passed energy bill included the MTBE protection provision; the Senate version did not.

To resolve the dispute, Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Energy Committee, proposed yesterday having the oil industry and taxpayers pay into an $11.4 billion cleanup fund.

The industry would contribute about $4 billion over 12 years. The federal government would come up with about $4.5 billion and states would chip in about $3 billion.

In return, MTBE producers would be shielded from product-liability lawsuits brought as a result of contaminated water supplies.

In a move aimed at winning the support of the New Hampshire Republican senators who helped kill the last energy bill, the proposed deal would allow one lawsuit filed after Sept. 5, 2003, to go ahead - the one brought by the state of New Hampshire.

Just to make it clear he was targeting Gregg and his fellow home-state senator, Republican John E. Sununu, Barton was joined in offering the compromise by Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican.

Bass previously opposed the energy bill but, with the cleanup fund, said he was prepared to support it.

The proposal is expected to be presented within the next few days to House-Senate negotiators working to bridge differences on an energy bill.

But the reaction from Gregg - and a similarly cool response from Sununu - was not a good sign for House Republicans hoping for speedy agreement on the bill.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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