WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans on Friday finished a draft of a broad energy bill that would double Americans' use of ethanol, improve reliability of the nation's power lines and aim billions of dollars in tax breaks to energy industries.
GOP lawmakers called it a path to "restructuring energy in this country" and said it would provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and bring greater stability into an energy sector stung by sharp price volatility, impending shortages and power blackouts.
But even as details of the massive draft bill, which is said to cover 1,700 pages, were being printed, Democrats complained about the Republican priorities. And they groused about the bill being crafted behind closed doors in negotiations among only Republican lawmakers.
"I think we're being asked to take it or leave it," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (search), D-N.M., who led the Senate Democrats on the energy conference. He predicted some parts of the bill "will give heartburn" to many Democrats in the Senate.
While approval of the bill is virtually assured by the House, probably next week, it is likely to provoke a dustup in the Senate.
Democrats — as well as some moderate Republicans — have strongly objected to a provision in the bill that would protect makers of MTBE (search), a gasoline additive that is contaminating water supplies, from product liability lawsuits.
Sen. Pete Domenici (search), R-N.M., chairman of the energy conference, said he hoped "there will be a strong surge" to get the bill through and avoid delays in the Senate.
Domenici and Rep. Billy Tauzin (search), R-La., head of the House conferees, provided only a broad outline of the bill at a news conference Friday. They said the details would be made public Saturday when the text of the bill is provided to Democrats.
But these major provisions are in the bill, according to the lawmakers:
— A doubling of ethanol production for gasoline to 5 billion gallons a year by 2012.
— Billions of dollars in tax incentives for producers of oil, natural gas, clean-burning coal and nuclear power. The size of the tax package has yet to be made public, but discussions have ranged from $16 billion to $20 billion, the majority going to traditional energy industries.
— Authority and financial help to build a $20 billion pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska's North Slope.
— Mandatory reliability requirements for high-voltage power lines and incentives to spur power line production.
— Tax incentives aimed at improving energy efficiency of homes and some appliances and at encouraging use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biodiesel.
— A requirement to speed up permits and easing of some environmental rules to promote energy development on public lands.
— Authority to construct a $1 billion reactor in Idaho and to produce hydrogen and tax breaks to spur development of six next-generation commercial power reactors.
President Bush applauded the agreement, saying an energy bill is an imperative for both economic and national security. "America will be safer and stronger with a national energy policy that will help keep the lights on, the furnaces lit and the factories running," he said in a statement.
Still, the measure does not include one of Bush's top energy goals: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) in Alaska to oil development. The provision was dropped after it became clear that Democrats and Republican moderates in the Senate would scuttle the whole bill over Arctic refuge drilling.
"Everything we worked on would be dead," said Domenici, when asked why the Arctic refuge provision was not included.
Energy legislation has been a top priority of the White House. Bush has said he wanted a bill this year. Pressure on lawmakers to push through a bill increased in August when a power blackout hit all or parts of eight states in the Midwest and Northeast.
But getting a bill has not been easy. Both the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the bill earlier this year.
House and Senate Republicans wrangled for weeks over various issues, from how to deal with the MTBE additive and ethanol taxes to whether the bill should include price supports for Alaska natural gas as part of the deal to build the Alaska pipeline.
Only Vice President Dick Cheney's intervention brought agreement on ethanol taxes, a key part of the plan to expand ethanol use.
Tauzin marveled Friday at the prospect of an energy bill — the first overhaul of the country's energy agenda in a decade — "without a major energy crisis" facing the country.
He characterized the legislation as "in essence a jobs bill" predicting that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be produced as a result of expanded government support for clean coal research, increased energy production and development of new energy sources and technology.
Domenici said it would create almost 1 million jobs directly and indirectly in "virtually every segment of the economy" because of investments in energy-related business and construction.
Democrats were skeptical, suggesting the bill does little to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and fails to reduce energy consumption in transportation, especially auto fuel economy. Nor, they argue, does it wean America away from dependence on fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum.
Rep. John Dingell (search), D-Mich., one of the House conferees, said of the GOP-crafted bill, "I suspect it will needlessly endanger the environment, hurt consumers and investors and provide unaffordable subsidies to the energy industries."