Lawmakers, Experts Warn of U.S. Energy Crisis

Senate partisans continue to blame one another for the failure to pass a comprehensive energy bill this session, but some observers say criticism will be replaced by crisis if something isn't done soon to stem dependence on foreign oil and update the nation's electric grids.

"By not passing this bill right now and waiting until next year, [the Senate] is just retarding once again America getting its foothold on other alternative sources," said Mark Baxter, director of the Maguire Energy Institute (search) at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Not addressing this issue and getting something through does put our national security more and more in jeopardy."

In an end of session wrap-up on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle berated Republicans for failing to pass the bill, one of many challenges this year that he said "has not been met responsibly by the Republican-led Congress."

"Efforts to craft a national energy strategy to protect our environment and reduce our dependence upon foreign oil collapsed under the weight of a myriad of special interest giveaways," Daschle, D-S.D., said.

Separately, critics complained the bill was stuffed with pork-laden pet projects.

"It was just one pork-barrel project larded on to another, to the point where we're subsidizing a Hooters," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Fox News.

The bill would have funded a New Orleans mall that would have been anchored by a Hooters restaurant (search). The $23 million project was supposed to use the latest energy-saving technology.

But GOP leaders claim it is Democrats who are putting America's future at risk. The House passed the legislation in mid-November, but the measure was defeated in the Senate when Republicans fell two votes short of overcoming a Democrat-led filibuster.

Republican leaders warned that without a new energy package, America is in danger of suffering future blackouts and maintaining dependence on foreign oil.

"What they denied the American people was a comprehensive energy plan [that would reduce overseas energy reliance]. If there is another blackout, if the energy prices go up ... I think it is appropriate to point the fingers at the Democrats," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters in a Republican wrap-up before the Thanksgiving break.

While the Senate plans to take up the energy legislation in the beginning of next session, the principal author of the stalled bill, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., said that Americans should worry in the meantime.

“I hope in the ensuing months, as winter hits, that we don’t have high spikes in natural gas prices. I hope we don’t have another blackout. If they do and the American people ask what we’ve done about it, our answer will have to be ‘nothing,’” Domenici said.

Northeastern North America was temporarily shut down in August by a blackout that investigators say started in Ohio and cascaded through eight states and parts of Canada. Lawmakers have warned that another blackout could freeze portions of the country if the nation's electricity transmission lines are not updated.

The stalled bill calls for instituting mandatory grid operating rules to decrease the chance of a ripple effect and avoid future blackouts, measures supported by the independent North American Electric Reliability Council (search), which establishes voluntary operating guidelines for electric grids.

"We are concerned that the reliability legislation that was part of that bill was not passed, and we do think that would go a long way to pushing the reliability of that system forward," NERC Director of Communications Ellen Vancko told

She said NERC will continue to push for mandatory reliability provisions.

Legislators are also looking to take steps to free the nation from its dependence on foreign oil. According to the Department of Energy's 2003 Annual Energy Outlook (search), about 55 percent of U.S. oil needs are met by imports, primarily from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela, with additional fuel coming from seven Middle Eastern members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (search) as well as Indonesia and Nigeria.

The energy package contains provisions for helping develop alternative energy sources, including wind, solar, nuclear, and increased production of corn-based ethanol, and it seeks to boost domestic energy production by building a natural gas pipeline to Alaska.

Some experts said that while the energy bill would have been the nation's first comprehensive update since 1992, it did not go far enough to safeguard America's energy supply.

"You can put the spin on it that it would help reduce this country's dependence on imported oil but I find that argument hard to accept," said Bob Ebel, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search).

Ebel said the bill would have had a positive impact on the reliability of the electric grid and independence from foreign oil, but it does little to address consumption, and would not be an effective silver bullet.

He added that Americans have not faced a serious energy problem since the 1973 oil crisis, when lawmakers instituted the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (search) and implemented Corporate Average Fuel Economy (search) standards. Until Americans feel the pinch of an energy crisis, lawmakers will not take the difficult and dramatic steps of raising vehicle fuel efficiency.

"What we lack in this country is the political will is to take those steps necessary to have a real impact on supply and demand," Ebel said.

Baxter also cautioned that the incentives in the energy bill will not do enough to achieve energy independence because the development of windmills, solar power and other alternative energy sources is not enough to stem the reliance on foreign oil.

"We'll never become fully independent from foreign sources of fossil fuels ... You can't get there from here," he said.

Both Ebel and Baxter praised efforts to safeguard the nation's electrical grids, but warned that it will be no panacea.

"If the bill goes through, through the years, the system will become more reliable," Baxter said. "There is no short term cure to make the system as reliable as we'd all like to see it."