Work Completed On Long-Awaited Energy Policy Act

The U.S. Senate passed the 1,724-page Energy Policy Conference Report on July 29, by a vote of 74 to 26. The legislation will now be forwarded to the president's desk for his signature.

This vote came even though Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) voiced spirited opposition on the Senate floor the previous evening. They stressed how this legislation fails to reduce the nation's reliance on imported fuels, fails to tackle climate change concerns, and fails to promote renewable energy.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources and patron of this legislation, admitted that it is not perfect. "We cannot order Americans to buy smaller cars," Domenici said on July 29, "and we can't do everything in this one bill." Despite this, Domenici explained how this is a bill reaches mutual consent between the House and the Senate.

Many onlookers also have complained that this legislation -- four years in the making -- provides too many incentives to profitable energy companies and relies too heavily on non-mandated, voluntary programs. Despite the naysayers, this bipartisan bill does have its merits.

Section 414 supports clean gasification technologies that can burn fossil fuels to generate electricity and capture subsequent emissions. It directs the Secretary of Energy to provide loan guarantees for projects that utilize integrated gasification combined cycle technology to generate at least 400 megawatts at competitive market rates.

Section 711 encourages the Energy Department to develop vehicles powered by hybrid, fuel cell, ultra-low sulfur diesel vehicle technologies and establish a corresponding private/public partnership and pilot program.

Section 641 directs the Secretary of Energy to develop a next generation nuclear plant project (Gen IV) that can generate electricity and hydrogen fuels needed to support potential hydrogen energy needs. The legislation identifies the federal Idaho National Laboratory in the state of Idaho as the lead national laboratory to support this effort and comprise the construction of a prototype Gen IV facility.

This prototype plant will incorporate reactor technologies that promote high-temperature hydrogen production, energy conversion, nuclear fuel development, materials selection, and overall design engineering. Further, it will encourage a team effort with private partners that will probably include domestic nuclear energy companies like Exelon, Entergy, Dominion, Duke and General Electric.

The legislation also encourages international cooperation and partnership with other nations and may welcome other energy players like Framatome that is headquartered in France. The legislation appropriates $1.25 billion to the Energy Department to support this endeavor.

Legislation as voluminous as this conference report can contain apparent contradictions. For instance, section 968 directs the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior and Defense to conduct methane hydrate research and development activities. Methane hydrates are crystalline solids consisting of gas molecules, usually methane, each surrounded by a cage of water molecules that look very much like ice. Methane hydrates are stable formations that may be several hundred meters thick found near the Outer Continental Shelf at depths greater than 300 meters. (According to the U.S. Geological Survey, methane hydrates trapped in marine sediments that may represent immense carbon reservoirs that warrant further study due to both their energy and greenhouse gas characteristics.)

However, federal moratoria currently prohibit fossil fuel exploration and production off of most of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf. The legislation also stipulates that no regions currently covered by this moratoria (like the Atlantic Ocean Outer Continental Shelf) can be developed.

Additional information on the legislation (H.R. 6) can be accessed at http://thomas.loc.gov.

WRITER NOTE: Stuart V. Price (svprice@comcast.net), principal with RSVP Communications, lives outside Washington and has developed stakeholder communication programs in the energy, engineering and environmental fields for 20 years.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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