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Senators from both parties criticize energy legislation

(Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Dan Morgan, Washington Post:

Congressional Republicans took their energy legislation to the Senate yesterday and immediately ran into a barrage of criticism from members of both parties concerned about the huge bill's environmental impact and its favors for special interests.

After a day of debate, it was unclear whether supporters had the votes to prevent a filibuster that would block a final roll call on the measure, which is a priority of the Bush administration. The House passed the bill on Tuesday.

In the hectic lobbying for senators' votes, labor unions joined with energy companies to back the bill, which would pump billions of dollars into coal mining, pipeline construction and new investments in transmission lines and power plants -- creating jobs as well as profits. At the same time, environmental groups that oppose the bill found themselves at odds with traditional allies, such as groups representing producers of power from clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. Those industries would receive new tax credits.

Meanwhile, partisan alignments collapsed as senators divided along regional, rather than party, lines. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the measure is far from perfect, but he noted he will support it because of provisions that would help farmers. These include tax credits for wind power and for biodiesel fuel made from soybeans, and a mandatory doubling of the production of ethanol fuel made from corn.

"Now don't tell me that isn't good for this country," Dorgan said. "People who call ethanol a boondoggle just don't understand it at all. . . . It's growing our energy in our fields."

Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) said yesterday that he also supports the bill and may vote to head off a filibuster -- which can be overcome by 60 votes or more -- if Republicans allow adequate time to debate the legislation.

But Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) denounced the bill as "almost a gratuitous attack on New England" because of its incentives for midwestern coal-fired utility plants, whose pollution reaches the Northeast. He said the bill seems to have been "structured to benefit one area of the country over another."

Gregg said he is outraged by a provision that would exempt manufacturers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) from product liability lawsuits filed recently by communities in New Hampshire and other states.

As many as five Northeast GOP senators, including Gregg, were reported yesterday to have lined up behind a possible filibuster. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports the move, and sources said other western Republicans might join him.

The MTBE liability waiver -- inserted into the bill at the insistence of GOP lawmakers from the Gulf States -- emerged as a major issue for senators representing communities where the additive has been implicated in groundwater contamination. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said oil companies have known for years that the product contaminates water.

But Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who led the House-Senate negotiations on the bill, was defiant. "MTBE is a legitimate, valid product," he said, and manufacturers should not be held liable for damages unless their negligent handling of the product led to contamination.

Domenici told Durbin and other bill opponents: "If you kill this bill, you will kill ethanol. You will have given up and abandoned forever ethanol. . . . If that's what you like, follow the advice of the senator from Illinois, who has plenty of farmers waiting to see what's going to happen." Tax credits for wind power, he warned, would also go "out the window."

While the ethanol provision has cemented considerable backing for the bill among farm-state Democrats, provisions benefiting the coal industry are providing strong appeal to the Midwest and the Appalachians. Those regions would benefit from provisions that could help make high-sulfur coal -- a major cause of pollution by power plants -- more acceptable in the decades ahead.

The bill would provide the first tax credits for utilities that install advanced pollution control equipment. A major last-minute provision would authorize $2 billion to help older coal-burning plants comply with the Clean Air Act.

Such provisions would help coal -- the source of half of all U.S. energy production -- make a comeback against natural gas, the main source of new power production over the past decade. Natural gas prices have been rising.

"In my mind, this bill helps secure the future by allowing us to use coal in a whole new way, through investments in advanced research and development," said Joe Lucas, vice president of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, which is funded by coal-burning utilities.

The bill, nevertheless, has come under fire from some conservatives for its "pork barrel" projects and special-interest provisions. This week, a Wall Street Journal editorial said the Republican authors "have greased more wheels than a NASCAR pit crew."

The bill would provide financing assistance for a mall in Shreveport, La., that will house, among other things, a Hooters restaurant. McCain said the bill would subsidize "Hooters and polluters."

McCain also charged that the GOP drafters had slipped into the bill a provision to help Louisiana Energy Services Co. build a uranium enrichment plant in Domenici's state, New Mexico. He said the provision calls for an expedited environmental review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "The bill shortcuts the process and meaningful judicial review," McCain said.

James Ferland, president of Louisiana Energy Services, said yesterday that the provision would be "applicable to anybody who builds" an enrichment plant. "This tries to allow for early resolution of issues. It doesn't take any issues off the table."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63629-2003Nov19.html

Conferees Approve Energy Bill

By Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page A04

House and Senate conferees gave final approval to far-reaching energy legislation late last night, clearing the way for final congressional action later this week.

The action came after House negotiators rejected a Senate attempt to require large electric utilities to use a steadily increasing amount of power supplied by renewable sources, such as wind and solar plants. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said stronger federal support is crucial to moving the nation away from its dependence on coal, oil and gas.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state is a center of a thriving wind-energy industry, joined six Democrats to override other Republicans' objections by a vote of 7 to 6.

But the victory was short-lived. Later in the evening, House negotiators stripped the provision from the overall energy legislation.

The renewable-fuels provision had been a top priority of the environmental community. The bill passed earlier this year by the Senate included a requirement that large utilities draw as much as 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015. But the measure was not part of the bill passed by the House, where the GOP majority strongly favors more extensive development of domestic oil and gas resources.

In a sardonic comment, Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chief Senate negotiator, suggested that wind power was growing rapidly without the federal government mandating its use by utilities. "You will be sick of seeing windmills in about 10 years," he said.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said the provision would "dramatically increase consumer prices of electricity all across the country."

House and Senate Republicans, who had shut Democrats out of their deliberations for weeks, reached a deal Friday reconciling their versions of the legislation. Yesterday was the first opportunity Democrats had to amend the package.

But Senate Republicans rejected a long list of Democratic proposals during a lengthy session that ran late into the night. Among those was an amendment to restore some protections of the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA), which the bill repeals. Republicans also turned back attempts to add language helpful to rural electric cooperatives and to prevent manipulation of wholesale electricity markets.

Republicans broke ranks, however, on a Democratic proposal to reject a laboriously developed compromise with the House on a formula for subsidizing a doubling in production of ethanol fuel from corn.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that without the change, the federal highway trust fund would lose about $200 million a month in gasoline tax receipts. That is because gasoline blended with ethanol fuel from corn pays a lower tax than regular gasoline. The bill doubles ethanol production.

Baucus proposed reinstating a Senate-backed plan, which had been substantially modified during negotiations, that would essentially do away with the ethanol tax subsidy and give gasoline blenders a tax credit instead, thereby protecting the highway fund.

The amendment was backed by all Democrats and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). But it too, was rejected by the House.

The outlook for the overall bill remained uncertain yesterday. Although passage in the House is assured, it was unclear whether Democrats in the closely divided Senate would try to muster the 41 votes needed for a filibuster and keep it from being voted on before Congress adjourns for the year.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A54256-2003Nov17.html