Legal Update

The failure to pass a major piece of energy legislation in the past decade is not due to a lack of passion on the part of the members of the U.S. Congress. On the contrary, disagreements in the past have been so vigorous and divisive that Congress has not been able to hammer out an acceptable compromise. Our elected officials must find a way to channel all the energy that's being spent on endless, vitriolic debates about the myriad topics related to energy and try to come up with some main issues upon which a bipartisan consensus can be reached. The United States needs a comprehensive and balanced energy policy that will increase the independence and security of our energy supply, while at the same time protecting our environment. The hope is that this year a comprehensive energy bill will finally be enacted. Many political analysts, however, are skeptical that Congress will be able to overcome the current gridlock and pass the legislation in 2004.

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working with Democrats to facilitate the passage of the Senate's comprehensive energy bill (S. 2095), which was preceded by S.14. At press time in June, the bill, which was approved by the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, was scheduled for debate later in the summer. According to Domenici, after the Senate passes its version, the conference will be held to reconcile S.2095 with the U.S. House of Representatives' version, H.R. 6 Conference Report. The reconciliation process is expected to be lengthy, perhaps continuing into the fall. This amount of time is necessary in order to reconcile the differences between the two bills on several controversial issues.

The H.R. 6 Conference Report version of the energy bill covers the following areas: energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean coal technologies, vehicles and fuels, automobile efficiency and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, hydrogen powered vehicles, oil and gas exploration and development, nuclear, electricity, research and development, leaking underground storage tanks, and personnel and training.

On June 15, 2004, during what Republicans labeled "Energy Week," House Republicans pushed through H.R. 4503, the $31 billion package of energy proposals that is essentially identical to the bill (H.R. 6) that they approved in November 2003 and that died in the Senate for lack of approval. The general view is that the House bill became so expensive Republican senators joined Democratic senators, who opposed the bill for other reasons, to kill it.

Another key difference between the House and Senate versions of the energy bill is the methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) "safe harbor" or liability waiver provision, which has been stripped out of the Senate's version. This provision provides protection from liability for manufacturers of the fuel additive MTBE retroactively back to Sept. 5, 2003. According to an article published in Congress Daily on Feb. 10, 2004, House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R. - Texas) has suggested that a Senate-passed energy bill without the MTBE liability waiver is not acceptable to the House.

Along different lines, on May 11, 2004, the Senate overwhelmingly adopted an energy tax package that was added to the export tax bill (S. 1637). The proposed legislation, among other things, would extend tax credits to firms that produce electricity via renewable resources such as biomass, wind, and solar power. Some analysts predict this bill has a better chance of passing this year than the comprehensive energy bill.

To learn more about these bills, check out the Library of Congress' Web site at thomas.loc.gov. Additionally, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has posted a summary of the major differences between S. 2095 and H.R. 6 on its Web site at energy.senate.gov/news/rep_release.cfm?id=217948.

One of the major reasons that it's important for our country to enact a comprehensive energy policy as soon as possible is that global competition for existing energy supplies is increasing rapidly. In his article "AST Alert," (found under Features on this Web site) author Mark Baxter, the director of Southern Methodist University's Maguire Energy Institute, explains how competing interests, economic factors, and geopolitics are creating a medley of forces impacting the energy industry. He also discusses the implications of these issues on the development of alternative energy sources.

"Failure to develop an energy policy means we can look forward to a lifetime of enriching the obscene sheiks, of wasting treasure and blood to defend the Middle East, while impoverishing ordinary Americans and hobbling our economy," Morton Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report magazine, points out in a recent editorial.

We must focus on producing fossil fuel sources in an environmentally sound manner, while also promoting the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. We also need to increase conservation efforts. With the introduction of more hybrid vehicles, the automobile industry has demonstrated that they can manufacture more efficient vehicles. Along with that, we must work toward updating the fuel efficiency standards for cars, sports utility vehicles, and light trucks.

This editorial originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No. 7.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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