- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Senate Republican leaders introduced legislation yesterday to promote U.S. energy development, including opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, and pledged to pass the plan by summer.

The long-term measures in the bill will not do much to relieve today's sky-high natural gas prices and electricity shortages, they said, but they could prevent a repeat of the past year's energy crisis in future years.

The bill includes increased funding to help the poorest Americans cope with high home heating and cooling costs. Crafted by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Frank H. Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and others, it would permit drilling for oil and gas in vast areas of the outer continental shelf as well as Alaska. It also features tax and regulatory incentives for conservation and development of oil, gas, coal, nuclear and renewable fuels.

"The biggest threat to our prosperity is the energy situation," said Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, chronicling how the energy crunch started with a record spike in gasoline prices last summer that turned into a home heating crisis this fall and the California electricity debacle this winter.

"It's time to do something about it," he said, adding that the shortages of gas and oil that caused last year's problems have been building for 25 years as Americans put off energy development in favor of environmental preservation. "If we don't do this, we will have far worse problems in the future."

Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, said high energy prices already have shaved 0.4 percent off U.S. economic growth in the last year and are a major culprit in the sharp economic slowdown that threatens to turn into recession this year.

"We have an energy crisis," he said, predicting that the rolling blackouts experienced in California this winter could "ripple across America" unless the country moves swiftly to expand its energy infrastructure. "We need the facilities to transport our energy. We will balance these needs with the needs of the environment."

Mr. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said his bill is designed to reduce dependence on imported oil from about 55 percent today to 50 percent by 2011 a goal that cannot be met without tapping the Arctic reserves, which are estimated to hold between 3.2 billion and 16 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil.

The higher estimate would yield enough oil to replace imports from Saudi Arabia the world's largest oil producer for 30 years, Mr. Murkowski said.

Joining the Republicans in sponsoring the legislation was Sen. John B. Breaux, a leading centrist Democrat from Louisiana, though he did not appear to speak for the bill yesterday. Democrats and some liberal Republicans who oppose opening the Arctic reserve did not speak out yesterday.

But environmental groups came out in full force against the bill's strong emphasis on developing new energy sources. They urged greater fuel conservation through regulatory measures such as higher corporate average fuel economy standards for cars and sport utility vehicles.

The heated rhetoric from environmentalists ensures a pitched battle over the bill in Congress this year. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, already has pledged to filibuster any legislation that would open up the Arctic reserve to drilling.

"America needs an energy strategy, not a drilling frenzy in the Arctic," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. He said the bill would jeopardize more than 100 species of birds, caribou and other wildlife that rely on the refuge's coastal plain for feeding and giving birth.

"America cannot drill its way to energy security," he said, noting that the nation has only 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves and will always depend on imports from the Middle East. He added that the Republican bill gives only "lip service" to alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Mr. Murkowski said his bill, which contains hundreds of provisions addressing nearly every facet of energy production, delivery and consumption, is only a starting place. It will be amended by legislation the Bush administration is drafting and will present to Congress in the next six weeks, he said.

Mr. Murkowski already has dropped provisions contained in a draft version of the bill that were favorable to big oil companies like Exxon Mobil, which he said are enjoying handsome profits and don't need federal aid.

The bill retains tax credits for small domestic operators of low-volume oil and natural gas wells, to help to keep the wells operating when energy prices fall like they did in 1998. Oil companies also would get a break when prices are depressed on the federal royalties they pay for offshore drilling.

Environmentalists decried the bill's proposed easing of environmental regulations on coal-fired power plants that convert to "clean-coal" technologies.

"It's a polluters dream, but a nightmare for public health and the environment," said Becky Stanfield of the Public Interest Research Group.

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