Long-sought energy bill won't provide fast relief

House OKs plan central to Bush agenda

promotes nuclear plants, clean coal

July 29, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - After almost five years of trying, President Bush is about to get an energy bill. It costs more than he wanted, puts off his wish for Arctic oil exploration and does nothing to lower the soaring price of gas at the pump anytime soon.

But the comprehensive bill, which the House of Representatives passed yesterday, 275-156, and which faces easy passage by the Senate, probably today, presents Bush with a policy that he has made a priority since his first days in office.

The bill gives the oil and gas industries sizable federal subsidies, tries to kick-start a new age of nuclear power by encouraging plant construction, and offers generous tax incentives to the coal industry to extract and produce cleaner-burning coal.

Under its provisions, consumers might find it easier to buy energy-efficient appliances. Car gas tanks will use more ethanol, a corn-based, cleaner-burning fuel additive. And when it comes to our watches, we'll still spring forward in March, but we'll fall back in November, because daylight-saving time will be extended by one month to save electricity.

But lawmakers and analysts conceded that on its major selling point - advancing America's energy independence - the bill's impact will be long term at best. It won't affect the current price of gas at the pump. And though it aims to diversify America's energy sources and ease the extraction of domestic oil and gas, it sets no goals for reducing American dependence on foreign oil.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, hailed the bill as "the right thing for the American people. They should expect to have an affordable, reliable, efficient and environmentally sound supply of energy, and this bill assures that they will."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the final legislation was an improvement over an earlier House version.

But, she added, "the American people need and deserve an energy policy that will reduce energy prices, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce pollution. Unfortunately, this bill is not the answer."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was "pleased" with the measure, which he said "will put us on a path to reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy. This legislation helps address the root causes of high energy prices. It will expand domestic production, it will increase conservation and it will improve reliability of our electricity system as well."

Asked whether the bill would do anything to lower gasoline prices, McClellan said: "We didn't get into this overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight."

Overall, the bill provides a range of tax breaks totaling $14.5 billion over 10 years. It reduces the cost of those tax cuts with about $3 billion in revenue-producing measures, for a net cost of $11.5 billion. Bush had asked for only $6.7 billion in tax breaks over 10 years. About $1.3 billion of the tax breaks in the final bill would go to conservation and energy-efficiency programs.

House and Senate negotiators dropped a Bush-sought House provision that would have permitted oil drilling in a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a sticking point in the past. The drilling measure could be considered separately later, however.

Critics complained that the legislation does little to address the problem of global warming and climate change. The bill, however, does authorize test projects to study whether some technologies can reduce global warming. It also makes it easier for developing countries to try climate change technologies. And its encouragement of nuclear power, which doesn't emit so-called "greenhouse" gases, is praised by proponents as a move against global warming.

In Maryland's House delegation, Democrats Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Albert R. Wynn and Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest supported the bill. Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings and Chris Van Hollen and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against the measure.

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