House ready to pass energy bill

Published April 21, 2005 12:33PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House is set to approve an energy bill that would open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling and provide billions of dollars in benefits to energy industries, but critics say it does little to reduce the nation's thirst for oil.

The legislation, expected to be voted on by the House on Thursday, is certain to produce a confrontation with the Senate over protection of the Alaska refuge and over a provision in the bill that would help makers of a water-polluting gasoline additive deflect environmental lawsuits.

By a vote of 231-200, the House late Wednesday rejected an attempt to strip from the bill a section to allow oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska. The House has given the go-ahead for drilling there twice in the past four years, only see the issue die in the Senate each time.

The House bill also would shield the makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has prompted dozens of lawsuits over drinking water contamination, from defective product liability claims. The issue was blamed for scuttling energy legislation in the Senate in 2003.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has insisted that the MTBE liability waiver be included, arguing that the oil industry produced MTBE to help meet government-imposed clean air requirements in the 1990s, so Congress should protect the industry against what is expected to be an avalanche of lawsuits that claim the product is defective.

The "safe harbor" for MTBE makers will leave communities and water districts around the country left to pay cleanup bills, said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. She said dozens of members of Congress represent districts where water agencies or communities have filed lawsuits that would be thwarted if the MTBE liability waiver became law.

The bill calls for $8.1 billion in tax breaks over 10 years, most of it going to promote the coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas industries. In addition it would give refiners and oil companies $2 billion over eight years for shifting from making MTBE as the additive is phased out. It also calls for $2 billion over 10 years to fund research into oil and gas recovery in extremely deep areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

DeLay, who has been fighting allegations of unethical conduct involving his travels and other issues, has been the primary force behind both the MTBE industry assistance and money for deep-water drilling research.

"This is the majority leader's bill that we are debating here today," Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said during floor debate Wednesday, alluding the DeLay. "It is clearly designed to help energy companies make more money."

Development of the Alaska refuge has been a contentious issue for nearly a decade and is sure to be one again now that the House has included it in its energy agenda.

Environmentalists fear a spider web of drilling platforms and pipelines would harm the area's polar bears, caribou, migrating birds and other wildlife. Senate Democrats have pledged to filibuster any energy bill that would open the refuge to oil companies.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., acknowledged that ANWR was "a very unique place" that deserves protection but argued that its oil can be developed using modern drilling techniques without harming the environment and wildlife.

"We don't have to choose between providing the energy resources ... and protecting our environment," he said.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., whose amendment to remove the provision was defeated, said it was wrong to ignore improvements in the fuel economy of cars -- which he said use 70 percent of the nation's oil -- and "then turn to the wilderness areas and say we need energy."

An attempt to require automakers to increase fuel economy to a fleet average of 33 miles per gallon over the next decade was defeated 254-177. Such the requirement would result in cutting oil use by 2 million barrels a day -- more than could be taken from ANWR -- by 2020, said Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the measure's co-sponsor. Opponents of the fuel economy proposal said it would cost the auto industry jobs, force consumers to buy smaller cars and reduce automobile safety. Boehlert called those claims "nonsense."

"We don't need to micromanage our auto manufacturers," countered Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

President Bush on Wednesday urged Congress to give him an energy bill by summer, including an OK for oil exploration in the Alaska refuge. He said ANWR's production would be equal to nearly half the oil the U.S. now gets from Venezuela and that the oil can be recovered "with almost no impact on land and local wildlife."

Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Bush said swift action on energy by Congress -- where a succession of energy bills have languished for four years - would "send an important signal" that the country "is serious about solving America's energy problems."

The House bill would make it easier to build liquefied natural gas import terminals, even if states or local communities oppose the project, and require refiners to use 5 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol a year in gasoline, a third more than what was produced last year.

By H. Josef Hebert

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