Energy Bill Advanced by House-Senate Conference Committee

WASHINGTON, DC, July 27, 2005 (ENS) - Breaking a four year deadlock, a House-Senate conference committee Tuesday approved an energy bill, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6). The action clears the way for final passage in Congress this week and will satisfy President George W. Bush, who has been working towards energy legislation since he was first elected in 2001.

"We will put before Congress the most comprehensive energy legislation in the last 30 years. This balanced bill will lower energy prices for consumers, spur our economy, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and take unprecedented steps to promote greater energy conservation and efficiency," said Congressman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


Congressman Joe Barton of Texas piloted the Energy Policy Act of 2005 through the House-Senate conference committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"I agree with our president - four years is long enough for an energy bill," said Barton. "This agreement turns the tide and offers support to both our economy and our national security."

"A month ago, when I pledged to get an energy bill to the president by August, I spoke more from hope than conviction," said U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "But I underestimated the resolve of conferees to address our energy challenges now."

But amidst the back-patting and congratulations, environmentalists expressed concern that the bill will not lead to energy independence and does not address global warming.

"Congress has failed to deliver a responsible energy policy that moves America towards energy independence and energy security while providing affordable energy and a clean environment," said Karen Wayland, legislative director for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"By every measure, the energy bill put forth by this Congress turned out to be not just a missed opportunity but a huge waste of energy. In fact, clearly nothing good can come from this bill, so why the rush? We urge Congress to quit while it's behind and put the brakes on what really is an energy bill in name only," said Wayland.

But H.R. 6 is expected to easily win a bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate, sending the bill to the White House after similar measures died in two previous legislative sessions.

The Conference Committee says the energy bill:

The plan to create an $11.4 billion cleanup fund to remediate water contaminated by the gasoline oxygenate MTBE in exchange for liability protection for refiners "has not been accepted by the Senate and its unlikely - in fact very unlikely - that it would be," Barton said Sunday, sweeping aside the controversial proposal on which the two previous energy bill attempts have foundered.


Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, said the costs of remediating MTBE damage to water supplies should not be loaded onto gasoline consumers. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, expressed the reservations of many senators, saying Friday, "While the clean air benefits of the reformulated gasoline program have been significant, this oxygenate has causes serious damage to water quality nationwide. MTBE is classified as a possible human carcinogen, and, according to the Government Accountability Office, it has now been detected in the groundwater of every state in the nation. Congress should act to discontinue the use of MTBE, and should not shift the burden for MTBE cleanup to communities and citizens.

Hundreds of municipalities, water districts, and some states are seeking to recover the costs associated with removing the contaminant from their water supplies.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, announced Tuesday that the energy bill will include a tax credit for gas stations to install equipment accommodating E-85, an ethanol-based fuel alternative.

E-85 contains 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline and can be used in more than 3.5 million flexible fuel vehicles in the United States.


Congressman Dennis Hastert of Illinois is speaker of the House of Representatives. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"This tax credit is another way to encourage the use of ethanol, which will benefit the environment, reduce our nation's dependency on foreign oil - and help our farmers," said Hastert, who worked to ensure the provision was included in the legislation as it benefits the corn growers of Illinois. "Access to E-85 will also provide much-needed relief for consumers at the pump, as it is up to 50 cents less per gallon than unleaded gasoline."

Ethanol critics say that more energy is expended to manufacture ethanol than the energy the fuel produces when burned.

The NRDC's Wayland is critical of the exemptions to environmental laws offered to the oil and gas industry by this legislation. "Americans no doubt also will be shocked to learn that the energy bill undermines protections for our health and our water supplies, and destroys communities and treasured public lands across the West, by exempting the powerful oil and gas industry from basic protections under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act."

"And by requiring the federal government to do an expensive offshore oil and gas seismic inventory that threatens marine life, the bill takes the first step toward ending 24 years of protections for our coasts and beaches," Wayland warned. "Even marine sanctuaries would be open to energy exploration under this provision."

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, was even more critical of the measure produced by the House-Senate conference committee. "This bill was written by a bunch of self-interested politicians with their eyes firmly fixed on the 2006 elections," he said.

"Both Republicans and Democrats are completely paralyzed in addressing the nation's three big energy challenges - reducing our dependence on Middle East oil, reducing gasoline prices for consumers, and beginning to shift our economy to renewable energy technologies," said Clapp. "On all three issues, the bill is a big fat zero."

"Republicans will vote for it because it pays off their constituents in the oil, gas, coal, electricity and nuclear industries," he said. "Democrats will vote for it because they're afraid of Republican TV spots in next year's campaigns attacking them for voting against a bill labeled energy."

A controversial provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling is unlikely to be included in the final version of the legislation. But royalties from drilling leases have been included in Senate budget language, and final votes on Arctic drilling are expected in Congress in September.