WASHINGTON – House Republicans pushed through legislation Wednesday that supporters said would speed construction of new refineries (search) to ease tight gasoline supplies. Opponents said the bill would reduce environmental protection and do little to stem high fuel costs.
The legislation was approved by a vote of 239-192 as House Republican leaders sought to dramatize the congressional impasse over energy legislation by bringing up for votes a series of energy-related bills.
Democrats said the effort was all for show since none of the bills has a chance of being approved by the Senate.
The refinery legislation would make the Energy Department (search) the key agency dealing with refinery permits for plants proposed in designated development zones where there is high unemployment or where a refinery had been closed. It also would require that permit decisions be made within six months after applications are received.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the bill's sponsor, argued that the measure does not waive or roll back existing requirements for environmental protection or siting of a facility. But he said it would spur construction of new refineries by cutting through the approval process.
But some Democrats argued that the bill would allow the Energy Department, whose primary role is to support the energy industry, to override the Environmental Protection Agency (search) and state officials charged with enforcing clean air standards.
It would make the energy secretary "an environmental czar" who could override state environmental agencies and local officials, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., complained. He said GOP leaders were pushing the bill through without ever examining its ramifications in a hearing.
Separately, the House failed to pass a bill that would have limited the number of so-called "boutique fuels" that refiners have to make to meet clean air requirements.
GOP leaders also unexpectedly abandoned plans to take up once again the issue of oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) after it became uncertain they had enough votes to get the bill passed.
To attract more Democrats, the bill earmarked revenue from the refuge's oil for funding of a miners' health care plan. However, the miners' union said Wednesday it opposed the provision, prompting Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to withdraw the legislation. The House repeatedly has approved oil drilling in the Alaska refuge, only to see the measure killed in the Senate.
The refinery bill was sharply criticized by environmentalists and state officials in charge of enforcing air quality standards.
"It pre-empts state and local environmental agencies" enforcing pollution controls on refineries, said William Becker, executive director of two associations that represent state and local air pollution control agencies. "The bill will obstruct state and local efforts to achieve and maintain clean, healthful air."
Becker said that under the law the Energy Department no longer would have to require refinery operators to install the best available technology to deal with smokestack pollution.
Supporters of the bill said there has not been a new refinery built in the country since 1976 and the number of refineries has declined dramatically as smaller facilities have been shut down.
Refinery capacity today is about 16.8 million barrels a day, compared with 18.6 million barrels a day in 1981, according to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.
But industry leaders say there are many reasons that refineries haven't been built beyond problems with permitting and environmental requirements. Refineries, for example, have had a history of meager profit margins, making it difficult to attract capital.
Refinery profits have soared along with high gasoline prices this year, but there's no assurance of stable profits in the future to attract the estimated $3 billion needed to build a new, large refinery, industry experts said.