A High Energy Debate

If nothing else, the U.S. Congress' ongoing attempts to pass a new comprehensive energy policy are always lively because of the highly charged issues involved. For example, last year heated wrangling blocked any possibility of reaching a consensus and the Senate conferees reached a bipartisan decision in November 2002 to abandon efforts to pass the energy bill (H.R. 4) by the end of last year's congressional session. In fact, disagreements have been so divisive in the past that Congress has failed to pass a major piece of energy legislation in over a decade.

In keeping with this tradition, spirited discussions have dominated the new energy legislation during 2003. Despite much debate, however, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives did manage to pass the Energy Act of 2003 (H.R. 6) by a vote of 247-175 on April 11. Among a variety of provisions, the bill allows for a renewable fuel standard mandating the production of increased levels of ethanol, reaching 5 billion gallons in 2015. In addition, the bill would repeal the current oxygenate standard for reformulated gasoline.

The House bill also authorizes $1.7 billion over five years for President Bush's Hydrogen Initiative to achieve by 2040 a hydrogen-based economy through the Freedom CAR and Freedom Fuel initiatives. H.R. 6 does not increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks.

One high profile item included in the House legislation is the provision authorizing drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Advocates of drilling in ANWR, however, face steep opposition in the Senate, where a similar pro-drilling provision was not passed during the budget reconciliation process in March. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has stated that he will not include a provision to permit drilling in ANWR in the energy legislation that his committee will draft given lack of support shown during the budget reconciliation debate.

On May 6, the Senate started debating its version of the comprehensive energy bill (S. 14). After the Senate approves its version of the bill, the legislation will move to conference where the differences between the Senate and the House versions will hopefully be resolved and the bill will be passed. House and Senate aides agree, however, that a House-Senate enegy bill conference could last well into the fall.

At press time, a number of amendments to the current version of S. 14 are expected to be introduced. For example, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) intends to offer two amendments to address the CAFE standards: one amendment would increase fuel economy standards for both cars and certain light trucks, including sports utility vehicles (SUVs), to 40 miles per gallon by 2015 and the second amendment would attempt to close the current so-called SUV loophole, which exempts SUVs and minivans from meeting the lower fuel economy standards established for cars.

Another expected amendment concerns climate change. In April, Sen. Domenici decided to remove the climate change title from the version of the bill that was approved by his committee. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (www.cei.org), a non-profit public policy group dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government, and 20 other conservative, consumer and tax payer organizations sent Sen. Domenici an open letter on April 9 urging him not to allow new climate policies to be part of the energy bill. Taking a different view on this controversial issue, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are expected to offer a bipartisan proposal concerning climate change in which they seek mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from different sectors of the U.S. economy.

Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) is planning to propose renewable energy amendments to S. 14, which would require utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Neither the pending Senate legislation nor the House-passed bill contains a mandatory or voluntary renewable energy source standard.

On May 13, the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org),which is a nonprofit group of scientists and citizens, issued a report assigning grades to each of the 50 states based on its commitment to generating electricity from renewable sources, such as wind, solar power, bioenergy, geothermal power and landfill gas. California, Nevada, Texas and Massachusetts received high marks for their renewable gains, but 34 states received either D or F grades. The report points out that the wide disparity in state programs illustrates the need for a national renewable energy standard.

To learn more about H.R. 6 and S. 14, check out the Library of Congress' legislative information Web site at thomas.loc.gov.

In the interest of passing a fair and reasonable energy bill this year, our senators and represetatives must rise above stubborn bickering and pandering to special interest groups. Our elected officials need to show real leadership in putting together a viable program for energy independence, based on developing renewable resources, domestic production and energy efficiency.

This editorial originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 14, No. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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