- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

Senate Democrats, accusing Republicans of rushing headlong to "spoil the environment" with their energy strategy, yesterday offered an alternative plan that would force Americans to conserve energy through stepped-up regulation.

Signaling that the Democrats will use this year's debate over how to solve the energy crisis to show they are more "green" than Republicans, the plan features a stringent new federal cap on gasoline use by sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, aimed at cutting transportation fuel demand by 1.2 million barrels a day by 2008.

"We cannot drill our way out of this problem," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, "and we cannot use our coming energy challenges as justification for an all-out assault on the environment."

SUVs enjoy much looser fuel efficiency standards than cars. Republicans say putting them under such a stiff new cap would drive up the price of the popular vehicles. Efforts to impose tougher standards have regularly failed in congressional votes in recent years.

The Democratic plan, authored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, also includes tax incentives for conservation and drilling more oil and natural gas out of the Gulf of Mexico and developed areas of Alaska. One generous new incentive would promote the building of a trans-Alaska pipeline to transport natural gas to the lower 48 states.

In another regulatory provision that runs counter to the bill's goal of energy conservation, the bill would impose price controls to give relief to Western electricity customers hit by soaring wholesale power prices. Energy specialists say such price caps result in increased energy consumption.

The Democrats said their SUV fuel cap and other conservation measures are aimed at protecting the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and other sensitive areas from oil and gas drilling, and at curbing the emissions from fuel burning that they say cause global warming.

Mr. Daschle said the plan would cut emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by 2010 a goal that roughly mimics, but is more lenient, than the requirements of the global warming treaty negotiated by the Clinton administration.

President Bush and most Republicans oppose the treaty, and it has never been ratified by the Senate. By putting off for a decade attainment of the treaty's goal of reducing emissions below 1990 levels, the Democratic energy plan confirms that it could not pass in its current form.

Yet Democratic leaders trumpeted their bill as superior to a Republican strategy that stresses energy production over conservation. They decried President Bush's decision last week to withdraw a promise he made during the campaign to cap the carbon dioxide emissions of power plants. Mr. Bush cited the nation's critical need for power as his reason.

"Our bill provides incentives to improve the supply and distribution of traditional energy supplies … in a way that also meets the rising challenge of global warming," Mr. Daschle said. "We believe this is the kind of balanced approach that Americans want to meet their energy needs."

While the Democrats pointedly reject Mr. Bush's proposal to drill in the Arctic refuge, their bill would promote drilling off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, over the objections of Mr. Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The White House has ruled out more drilling near Florida.

The president said earlier this week that to resolve the energy crisis, which has created rolling blackouts in California and driven up the price of natural gas and gasoline around the country, the nation must ease regulatory and political barriers that have blocked energy development in the United States.

Mr. Bush already has relaxed environmental rules at the request of California Gov. Gray Davis to enable more power to be brought on line in that electricity-starved state. He says that is the most immediate way he can work to ease shortages as Congress debates more permanent ways to increase energy supplies.

But the Democrats accused the president of ignoring California's woes and refusing to help. Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said the administration, by refusing to impose caps on wholesale power prices, is saying "tough luck" to the entire region. She accused Mr. Bush of carrying out the interests of oil companies.

In addition to instructing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to cap power prices at levels slightly over costs, the bill would give the agency authority to pre-empt the power of local authorities that block the building of transmission lines and pipelines.

Local activists for years have blocked facilities needed to ease critical shortages of power, natural gas and oil in California, New York and other Democratic strongholds.

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