"Shame, shame, shame, shame!"
That's the furious chant that erupted from the Democratic section of the House of Representatives a week ago Friday after Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, managed to eke out a victory for his Gasoline for America's Security (GAS) Act, which would loosen environmental laws and boost industry incentives to accelerate the expansion of oil-refinery capacity in the United States.
Now the onus is on Senate leaders who must decide whether they will help parlay Barton's much-contested victory into law.
Strongly backed by President Bush, the GAS Act has been framed by Barton as a response to the escalating gas prices provoked by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but critics say it is simply a repackaging of industry-friendly provisions that were cut out of the pre-Katrina energy bill on the grounds that they were too extreme.
The Barton legislation passed 212-210 after a flagrant attempt by the GOP leadership to strong-arm dissenting moderate Republicans into supporting the bill. House leaders extended the voting process from the standard five minutes to a remarkable 45 minutes, giving Barton and fellow Texan Tom DeLay (who's still active on the House floor, despite his grand jury indictments for conspiracy and money laundering) extra time to badger their colleagues into supporting the bill. Dems loudly protested the maneuvering, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who accused GOP leaders of reducing the House to a "banana republic."
It was a far closer call for the bill than expected. Democrats opposed it unanimously, along with 13 Republicans and one independent, while several moderate conservatives agreed to support the legislation only after Barton begrudgingly removed a provision that would have weakened the new-source review rule of the Clean Air Act, on the spurious grounds that it stood in the way of cheaper gas prices, among other things.
"The removal [of the NSR clause] essentially downgraded Hurricane Barton from a Cat 5 to a Cat 3 disaster," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "But it could still cause a lot of wreckage."
Chief among critics' concerns about the bill is that it would give the president authority to site refineries on many federal lands. While national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas would be off-limits, millions of acres of wildlife refuges would be fair game. The National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures submitted a letter of protest arguing that the legislation would "preempt state and local government authority to site and permit oil refineries."
The bill also contains a provision that could derail the much-touted diesel standards that were proposed by the Clinton administration, then enacted by the Bush administration and touted as one of its hallmark environmental achievements. It would limit the number of diesel-fuel types to two standard blends, ostensibly in an effort to expedite the transfer of fuel throughout the country during gasoline shortages. "It flatly contradicts the EPA's plan to phase in three or more cleaner types of diesel fuels over the next seven years, and jeopardizes the chances that we'll have the ultra-low-sulfur variety stipulated in the new standards," said John Walke, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Equally concerning to critics are components of the bill that would grant the oil industry financial relief -- perplexing given its current record-breaking earnings. One, for instance, would force any community or environmental group that legally challenges the development of a refinery and loses the case to foot the bill for the defendants' legal costs -- an expense that few nonprofits are in a position to pay. "It's one of the more outrageous examples of abuse in this bill," said O'Donnell, "an attempt to silence all opposition to refinery development through financial intimidation -- as if ExxonMobil is lacking revenues!"
Other provisions of the bill have nothing to do with gas prices or refineries at all, including one that would postpone the implementation of stricter ozone standards in "downwind" areas of the country like the Northeast, which gets heavily hit with pollution blowing over from Midwestern power plants.
But the biggest concern, according to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, one of the Republicans most vocally opposed to GAS, is not what the legislation does, it's what it doesn't do. "Perhaps worst of all, the bill still does virtually nothing to limit the nation's growing demand for oil -- the core cause of price spikes," he wrote in a "Dear Colleague" letter on Oct. 7, exhorting members of the House to oppose the bill. He summed up his opposition by saying the legislation would "burden taxpayers, weaken environmental laws, interfere with states' prerogatives ... give undue aid to oil companies [and] ... have little or no effect on the price of gasoline."
Will the Senate pass GAS?
Many Congress watchers and insiders believe the Senate won't pass a bill as controversial as GAS. According to Bill Wicker, minority spokesperson for the Senate Energy Committee, "There hasn't been much enthusiasm in the Senate about refinery legislation in the first place, and all the extreme political theater and maneuvering in the House to get their bill passed only lessens it. There's not much chance we're going to see anything like [GAS] in the Senate." Indeed, Energy Committee chair Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said on C-SPAN last Friday that he is not inclined to draft or support a bill resembling Barton's.
But a milder version of the GAS bill in the Senate -- one that doesn't target air-quality protections, or expose federal lands to refinery development -- could nevertheless open the door to Barton's controversial agenda. "As long as a passable bill gets through the Senate, it could be loaded up with Barton's dirty provisions when the two bills get merged in conference [committee]," explained Kevin Curtis, a vice president of National Environmental Trust, who testified last week at a Senate Energy Committee hearing on energy issues in the wake of the recent hurricanes.
Given that the House-Senate negotiations during the conference process would be overseen by GOP leaders not known for their love of environmental protections -- Barton, Domenici and James Inhofe, R-Okla., chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- "it's a safe bet that they would conspire to use it as a vehicle for looser standards," said Curtis.
Inhofe, for his part, already introduced a refinery bill in late September that would provide incentives to build refineries on former military base sites. Wicker characterized it as "fairly benign," noting that "it doesn't have the offensive environmental waivers we saw in Rep. Barton's," but environmentalists are none too pleased with the measure. Inhofe plans to hold hearings on his bill next week, according to a Senate EPW committee staffer.
Domenici, meanwhile, is hard at work on a bill proposing to lift a decades-old federal ban on new offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, and another sanctioning oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The worst-case scenario, according to O'Donnell, is that Domenici and Inhofe would merge their proposals into a passable bill in the Senate, which could then be merged with Barton's in conference.
"It's certainly plausible that they'll end up with this sort of greatest-hits grab bag for industry," he said. "People are already predicting that Barton plans to reintroduce NSR in conference, or come up with even more atrocious ideas. Speculation and paranoia are high."