- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The nation’s chronic energy crises are being abetted by the chronic failure of Congress to do anything about it. Political embarrassment will be the least of the consequences of a Republican-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate again failing to send a bill that makes substantive improvements to energy production to the Republican president.

Last week, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici introduced a scaled-down version of the energy bill that was filibustered by the Senate last fall. Its estimated cost of $14 billion is about half of last year’s measure, but Mr. Domenici claims that the bill would still create about 800,000 jobs. A variety of items were stripped, including liability protections for producers of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), $1.1 billion in coastal restoration for Louisiana and $500 million for rural electricity development done by Alaska’s Denali Commission. The bill still includes several needed reforms, such as mandatory reliability standards for electrical grids, reauthorization of the Price-Anderson nuclear plant insurance and repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA), but is also still freighted with several unfortunate provisions, including extensive ethanol subsidies.

The revised bill faces an uncertain future — it has been called doomed in the Senate. New House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton has called passage of the bill a top priority, but he and many of his colleagues, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay, do not support the new Senate bill, in part due to the stripped-out MTBE provisions.

President Bush has repeatedly called upon Congress to pass an energy bill, and he and other members of his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, repeatedly tried to break legislative logjams on the bill. It is not clear whether the administration will back the new Senate version of the bill, or if administration backing will be sufficient to produce a new compromise.

Failure to pass a bill would allow electrical grids to continue to operate without mandatory reliability standards, making blackouts similar to last year’s a possibility. It would also ensure continued energy shortages and price spikes.

A more subtle effect will be a continued lack of capital investment in energy infrastructure. Current uncertainties also discourage spending on other high capital projects such as the building of new nuclear plants. Should Democrats take control of either legislative chamber or the executive next November, any true energy bill will face an even more uncertain future.

This opportunity must not be lost. The Republican-controlled Congress must find a way to clear an energy bill with significant production measures this term. It must not continue to feed the nation’s chronic energy shortages.

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