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Senate Foils Feinstein-Led Charge in Battle Over Ethanol

Opposition fails in its bid to exempt states and let them decide whether to use corn-based fuel.

June 04, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate rejected an effort Tuesday by West and East Coast senators to weaken a measure that would require greater use of ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply.

The requirement's opponents, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), argued that it could increase prices at the pump. But on a 62-34 vote, the Senate defeated a Feinstein-sponsored amendment that would have let states decide whether to use the corn-based fuel. Also defeated, 60 to 35, was a second Feinstein amendment that would have exempted states from the ethanol rule if they could meet federal clean-air rules without use of the additive.

The votes were the latest setback for lawmakers from the two coasts who have fought to keep the ethanol requirement out of the energy policy bill that the Senate is debating. The measure would double the amount of ethanol that would have to be added to gasoline nationwide, to 5 billion gallons by 2012.

The provision is backed by President Bush, as well as Democratic and GOP lawmakers from farm states. Some predict that such widespread support could prove crucial to propelling Congress to pass the entire energy bill -- an effort that failed last year.

The House in April passed an administration-backed bill that would overhaul the nation's energy policy for the first time in a more than a decade. It seeks to increase domestic energy production and offers some incentives to promote energy conservation.

Greater use of ethanol also would be required by the House bill. Ethanol proponents say the provision would go a long way toward reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and developing cleaner-burning energy sources. They also say it would benefit struggling farmers.

"It's a good thing for America," said Sen. James Talent (R-Mo.). "It will mean more jobs for America. It will mean a greater measure of energy independence for our country."

Feinstein contended that the provision amounted to a "hidden gas tax." She also noted that it would exempt Alaska and Hawaii from the ethanol requirement because of concerns about cost and other potential problems in transporting the fuel from the Midwest to those states. She asked why other states, with similar concerns, should be treated differently.

"Aren't we just asking for trouble by mandating ethanol nationwide if it is produced almost entirely in one region?" Feinstein asked.

The debate pitted Feinstein against her party's Senate leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota -- an ethanol-producing state. Responding to her complaints, Daschle said, "It's already being used in the state of California." He noted that none of the problems predicted by the additive's foes has materialized.

Feinstein and others worry that increased use of ethanol could cause it to become scarce, increasing its cost and, as a result, the price of gasoline.

But ethanol proponents said its suppliers already are increasing production and expect to be able to meet broader demands.

California already has been adding ethanol to its gasoline because of a federal requirement to use cleaner-burning fuel in smoggy areas. The state had been using MTBE -- methyl tertiary butyl ether -- but Gov. Gray Davis has ordered its use be phased out by Jan. 1 because it has been blamed for contaminating water supplies.

Reflecting the regional nature of the dispute, Feinstein's amendments were backed not only by such Democratic colleagues as Barbara Boxer of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York, but also by some conservative Republicans. These included Sens. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and George Allen of Virginia.

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