- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

The Senate last night agreed to move to a floor vote on the long-delayed energy bill and worked well into the evening to pass the measure.

Senators voted 92-4 to limit debate to 30 hours, drawing the bill closer to a conclusion that has taken two weeks to reach. The bill will face many obstacles in conference with the House, but most senators said they are optimistic about final passage.

“We think this is the year when a comprehensive energy policy comes to fruition,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican. “We’re going to pass it; we’re going to conference it with the House and get it to the president’s desk.”

The bill is expected to get a floor vote Tuesday.

One old issue that could derail the legislation is the dispute over how to handle producers of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE).

Congress mandated that refiners add MTBE to gasoline as a way to reduce hydrocarbon emissions. But scientists discovered that the chemical contaminates ground and drinking water when it seeps through cracks in the concrete basins used to house it, resulting in lawsuits from litigants who call the product defective.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, has demanded that Congress accept its role and provide a lawsuit-liability protection for MTBE producers, but the Senate has rejected that proposal.

In an effort to resolve the MTBE issue, Congress decided to remove oil and gas drilling exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from the energy bill. The ANWR issue will be addressed in the budget and is tagged as an income adjustment, called budget reconciliation. The Senate and House must agree to an estimate on how much revenue the drilling will generate and present the estimate to budgeters by Sept. 13.

The ANWR and MTBE provisions have been the biggest roadblocks to a comprehensive energy plan for the past three years, but yesterday a new issue — coastal oil and gas drilling — presented itself yesterday as a new potential problem.

The Senate yesterday passed an amendment to pay six coastal states with potential oil and gas $1 billion over five years, drawing the ire of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg. The amendment “effectively turns the program into an entitlement for these six states,” said Mr. Gregg, New Hampshire Republican.

“This program in effect creates a block grant for six beneficiary states that allows them to use the money for ‘onshore infrastructure projects and public service needs’ — which essentially means for any purpose whatsoever.”

Senators from the six states — Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, California and Texas — argued strongly for the measure.

“The people of Louisiana are entitled … to the money they generate to the general fund,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

She said drilling off the Louisiana coast has produced $155 billion in federal revenue since 1953.

“If there is any other state that generates the amount of money we do, show it to me,” said Mrs. Landrieu said, who criticized states that refuse to allow drilling off their coasts but reap the benefits of those that do.

“I am so tired of people coming to this floor and putting up pictures of pelicans covered with oil,” she said. “I’m so sick of it I am about ready to sit down, but I won’t, because we are trying to save our wildlife and have worked hard to do it.”

Senators debated other amendments well into the night, rejecting on a 67-28 vote a proposal by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, to order automakers to boost the average fuel economy of cars to 40 miles per gallon by 2016, and light trucks to 27.5 miles per gallon.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, denounced the proposal as a “politically inspired” bid to force motorists into smaller cars, which would “result in more fatalities” and lose auto industry jobs.

The energy bill will provide numerous incentives for renewable fuels, such as wind, solar, hydrogen and biomass. It also requires an 8 billion gallon standard, 3 billion gallons more than the House version, for ethanol, another clean fuel additive, by 2012.

As President Bush requested, the bill grants large loan and default protection for any person or corporation that builds the next four U.S. nuclear plants. Several incentives to the private sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide — also passed onto the legislation.

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