House Passes Energy Bill

For the fifth time in four years the House (search) has approved a far-reaching energy bill. Unresolved is whether the Senate (search) will be able to put together legislation that both chambers can embrace.

That's been a long-standing problem — and it's likely to continue to be one this time around.

Despite concern across the country as high gasoline prices pinch the pocketbook, the struggle to enact a new national agenda on energy probably won't ease in the months ahead. Senate Republicans hope to get their energy bill ready for a vote before the end of May.

The bill the House passed Thursday by a 249-183 margin reflects many of President Bush's energy priorities, and energy industries and the business community quickly embraced it. Just as quickly, environmentalists and many congressional Democrats denounced it, although 41 Democrats voted for passage.

Bush, who had challenged Congress to send him something on energy before their summer recess in August, called the House bill "an important step to secure our energy future and to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy."

It includes $8.1 billion in energy tax breaks and several billion in other subsidies, including $2 billion to increase research into drilling for oil and gas in extremely deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And there is $2 billion to makers of the gasoline additive MTBE to help them defray the cost of phasing out the product, which contaminates drinking water.

The House also called for opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) in Alaska to oil companies. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., whose committee will put together the Senate's energy bill, has said such a provision would prompt a filibuster in the Senate and likely could not be overcome.

Instead, the Senate hopes to address the Arctic refuge issue through a separate budget process for which a filibuster is not possible.

The House bill also would give MTBE makers, including major oil companies and refiners, protection against product liability lawsuits stemming from the water contamination. More than 80 such suits already have been filed by water districts, municipalities and the state of New Hampshire.

Two years ago an identical MBTE liability waiver stopped a nearly completed energy bill in its tracks.

The House bill is cheaper than the one that came close to being approved by Congress in 2003. Still, the Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group, estimated if all of programs authorized by the bill were to get money — which they will not — it would cost taxpayers $89 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Joe Barton (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas, who guided the bill during floor debate, said he would guess the bill will cost about $10 billion to $12 billion over five years. That's still too much for the White House.

"The president's very pleased with this bill," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman (search) told reporters. But he said he hoped that as the energy legislation works its way in the Senate and eventually in a conference between both chambers the cost can be brought down.

The bill has some provisions not seen in past energy legislation.

It would expand daylight-saving time by two months. The measure's supporters said that could save the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil a day. Nobody objected to that provision.

However, another new item in the House bill is likely to cause a stir if pursued in the Senate: language that assures the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has final say over where to build liquefied natural gas import terminals, overriding state and local opposition if necessary.

In many ways the House bill is not much different from legislation it passed in 2001 and again in 2003. Those bills also called for oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge and were tilted heavily to promoting energy production with modest attention to energy conservation.

Each time, however, the Senate came up with different energy priorities. When negotiators for both the House and Senate finally agreed on a bill in 2003, the deal fell apart over MTBE liability protection, which House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas refused to abandon.

Since then, Senate Republicans have strengthened their majority.

Barton said after the House vote that he believes he can find a compromise with the Senate over MTBE — perhaps funneling more money and federal attention toward water cleanup and the problem with leaking gasoline storage tanks. Still, Barton was surprised at the strength of the opposition to the MTBE provision, which fell just six votes shy of being scrapped.

"This was a surrogate vote on Tom DeLay," Barton said.

DeLay has been under attack from Democrats over unrelated ethics issues.