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The Nation

Senate OKs Energy Bill Linked to Conservation

Congress: Critics say it won't substantially reduce U.S. dependence on oil. House version tilts to more production.

April 26, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a bill Thursday that would revamp the nation's energy policy, paving the way for talks with the House on one of President Bush's domestic priorities.

The bill is a mix of relatively modest steps geared more toward promoting conservation and the use of alternative power sources. The House bill, taking its cue from Bush, is tilted more toward increasing production.

Left out of the Senate bill were two high-profile items: oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that is sought by Bush, and tougher vehicle miles-per-gallon standards that environmentalists want. Those defeats reflect the difficulty of passing sweeping legislation in a narrowly divided Congress, and many were disappointed by the final form of the Senate legislation.

Critics say it falls short of the goal of substantially reducing U.S. dependence on oil, terming it a step in the right direction but not a leap. But after six weeks of often-acrimonious debate, the Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly, 88 to 11.

Both California senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, were among those opposing the measure. They say a provision requiring ethanol to be added to gasoline would spike prices at the pump.

The bill is packed with a wide range of measures. These include a federal loan guarantee to spur construction of a $20-billion, 2,100-mile pipeline to carry Alaska natural gas to the Lower 48 states and a requirement that utilities generate more electricity from alternative sources, such as sun and wind. It offers close to $15 billion in tax incentives, roughly evenly divided between conservation and production measures.

It extends a cap on the nuclear industry's liability in accidents, a provision designed to remove an obstacle to expansion of nuclear power. It sets new energy efficiency standards for traffic lights. And it allows states to let solo drivers of part-electric, part-fuel hybrid vehicles use carpool lanes.

The Senate vote came more than a year after rolling power blackouts in California and energy price hikes throughout the country propelled energy policy to the top of the Washington agenda. More recently, political instability in the Middle East has underscored the issue's importance.

Bush, an ex-oilman, unveiled a national energy plan in May that called for expanding nuclear power, spending $2 billion for research on "clean coal" technologies and opening more federal land to oil and gas exploration, including parts of the Arctic refuge. The plan also included some environmentally friendly measures, such as tax incentives for residential solar power and fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Most of those measures are in the House bill passed in August.

Bush said Thursday that he looks forward to working with House and Senate negotiators to produce a compromise bill. "It is imperative that America increase its energy independence," he said.

The administration has said the Senate bill does too little to promote domestic production.

Officials at the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America echoed that complaint, saying the measure falls "far short" of the domestic energy production incentives in the House bill. But the group praised the Senate bill for including tax credits for small, independent power producers.

Environmental and consumer groups adamantly opposed to the House bill had a range of criticisms about the Senate version. They charged it would do little to promote cleaner fuels or to reduce global warming.

"Congress should go back to the drawing board," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the Public Interest Research Group, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) defended the Senate, saying that, while it was "far from perfect, it's far and away better than the disastrous effort put forward by the House."

Kerry cited provisions that would take initial steps toward addressing climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists believe contribute to global warming. A compromise plan agreed to Thursday would set up a voluntary inventory of greenhouse gases and a registry for companies that reduce their emissions of the gases. This registry would be used to give companies credit for early reductions in any future programs that call for cutting such emissions.

"This is more activity than we've seen on climate change in the Congress, I think, ever, which is a very positive sign," said Eileen Claussen, executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which works with companies that want to address the problem.

Leaders of the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate said they are eager to strike a deal on a final bill.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he looks forward to negotiations.

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