Hurricane Katrina has triggered a whirlwind of new energy proposals in Congress -- some gratifying to environmental activists, most galling.
The long-awaited energy bill that President Bush gleefully signed into law a mere month ago started looking sadly outdated when viewed against a backdrop of slackened oil production along the Gulf Coast, crippled refineries, gasoline shortages and soaring prices at the pump.
On Sept. 6, the day Congress reconvened after its summer recess, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee penned an uncharacteristically conservation-minded letter to the White House: "We would encourage you to make the federal government the leader in [fuel-conservation] efforts by instructing all federal agencies to curtail discretionary vehicle travel," the 22 committee members unanimously exhorted, "to accelerate procurement of high-efficiency or alternatively fueled vehicles, and to take other measures to conserve gasoline, aviation, and diesel fuel use by the federal government, except where needed to support essential functions and missions."
Then, Pete Domenici, Republican from New Mexico and chair of the Senate Energy Committee, made headlines when he declared that it was time for lawmakers to consider slapping stricter miles-per-gallon standards on auto manufacturers, mere weeks after pushing though an energy bill that was notably empty of fuel-economy requirements. "I believe we must take another look at CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards," Domenici said. Other conservative Republicans in the Senate, including Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have also starting talking about revisiting CAFE standards.
Next the bug moved to the House. On Wednesday of this week, a coalition of 10 Republicans and eight Democrats introduced a House bill calling for an 8-mile-per-gallon increase in the average fuel economy of automakers' fleets over a decade -- from the current 25 mpg to 33. It's largely the same measure that was proposed -- and rejected -- as an amendment to the energy bill earlier this year.
Proponents of stronger fuel-economy standards are happy to see the issue gaining more traction, but they're not holding their breath. Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program, predicts that the House bill stands little chance of passing. "You'd be able to knock me over with a feather if it did," he said.
Plenty of other energy-related proposals look to have better prospects, but they're largely of the "pillage and plunder" variety, according to Becker. "We're basically seeing all the bad stuff industry advocates couldn't squeeze onto the energy bill reemerge in these post-Katrina proposals," he said.
Katrina exposed the extreme vulnerability of U.S. oil infrastructure, but instead of pushing for a more diversified energy system that would make good use of renewables and enhance long-term energy security, many Republicans want to perpetuate the fossil-fuel-based status quo.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, announced that he and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have a whole new energy bill in mind -- "We are working on one as we speak," he said at a press conference -- that would not only open up protected areas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas drilling, but also fast-track the environmental review process required to obtain permits for building new oil refineries.
Said Barton the previous week, "If there is a silver lining in this tragic situation, it may be that our country understands how fragile our energy sector is ... We can't just get our oil and gas from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico. We need to diversify our domestic oil resources."
Despite warming up to the idea of tighter fuel-economy rules, Ted Stevens is thinking along the very same lines: "ANWR will have greater support than it would have had before Katrina," he told the Anchorage Daily News. "I would say woe onto him or her who really opposes the actions that are going to be necessary to restore our energy pattern."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has expressed his intention to fast-track energy legislation this fall, according to Becker. "I heard from a Senate office there will be a new energy bill that Frist will try to move through Congress quickly in the coming weeks by taking it straight to a vote on the Senate floor, without having hearings first." Becker predicts that the bill will "seize on Katrina to expand domestic fossil-fuel production" and possibly attempt to lift the moratorium on oil drilling on Florida's outer continental shelf. If there is a CAFE component, says Becker, "it will act merely as window dressing to gussy up a massive handout to industry."
As for the Arctic Refuge, Frist already has that covered: Last Monday, he reiterated plans to complete a budget reconciliation bill by Oct. 26, which will include a proposal to lift the ban on drilling in the refuge. Only 51 votes will be needed because reconciliation bills are exempt from filibusters.
Still other environment-threatening proposals dropped from the pre-Katrina energy bill are making a comeback, including liability protection for producers of the gasoline additive MTBE and measures that would expedite the construction of new pipelines and terminals for liquefied natural gas. Oil lobbyists are also requesting tax relief and rollbacks on the U.S. EPA's hard-won low-sulfur standards for diesel fuel used by trucks and buses, which are set to go into effect in 2006.
Kevin Curtis, vice president of National Environmental Trust, said the frenzy of new energy-related proposals reveals just how myopic the energy bill really was. "It's just astounding that not a month after the Republican leaders in Congress set into motion their much-ballyhooed 10-year plan to chart the course of America's energy future, the whole thing has been turned on its head," he said. "America can already look back and marvel that its supposedly forward-looking 'energy-security' plan couldn't stand the test of one hurricane."