Senate Votes to End Debate on Energy Bill

The Senate began wrapping up consideration of a wide-ranging energy bill Thursday that its sponsors said would launch a new era of developing cleaner fossil fuels (search), expand the use of renewable energy and foster conservation.

Senate leaders said they anticipated the bill could come to a vote before the day was out. Senators signaled their desire to move swiftly on the legislation, voting 92-4 to limit further debate to only a handful of amendments.

The legislation would provide $18 billion in energy tax incentives, much of them aimed at getting people to use less energy or promoting renewable sources such as wind and solar power. It also calls for doubling the use of corn-based ethanol (search), a boon to farmers, and provides a system of loan guarantees to help introduce new clean coal technology and the next generation of nuclear power reactors.

The Senate measure differs markedly from legislation passed by the House in April.

Assuming the bill will pass, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has predicted tough negotiations with the House over some of the major differences, including the amount and distribution of tax incentives and whether to include liability protection from environmental lawsuits for the makers of the gasoline additive MTBE.

The MTBE (search) provision, which is in the House-passed bill, was blamed for Congress' failure to pass an energy bill two years ago. The House also would provide only about $8 billion in tax breaks, most of it for traditional fossil energy industries and electric utilities.

The Senate bill avoids other contentious issues, including proposed oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) — which is in the House bill — and provisions that would significantly increase the fuel economy of automobiles and sport utility vehicles.

Domenici called the legislation "a new American policy ... for domestic growth" and said its passage would "fulfill a long-standing need for an American energy policy."

In recent weeks with crude oil prices at a record high and gasoline costing well over $2 a gallon at the pump, President Bush has repeatedly called on Congress to give him an energy bill before August. Given the expected tough negotiations remaining with the House, most senators believe that target is unlikely to be met.

For more than four years Congress has tried to enact energy legislation. Twice both the House and Senate passed separate energy bills, but were unable to agree on a final version.

Among the provisions in the Senate bill are:

— A requirement that refiners use 8 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline, about double current production, by 2012.

— Approval for an inventory of offshore oil and gas resources, a move critics said could be a prelude to drilling in areas now off limits.

— A provision on climate change that endorses Bush's policies of limiting action to voluntary measures and focuses on development of new technologies to reduce heat-trapping emissions.

— Federal reliability requirements and standards for electricity grids.

— Clear authority for federal regulators to override state opposition in the siting of liquefied natural gas import terminals.