WASHINGTON – The House narrowly approved a Republican-crafted energy bill Friday aimed at encouraging construction of new refineries, although opponents said it would do nothing to ease energy prices while handing unneeded benefits to a profit-rich oil industry.
Supporters of the measure said that hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear that the country needs more refineries, including new ones outside of the Gulf region. Critics argued it would allow the oil industry to avoid environmental regulations that would lead to dirtier air.
The bill passed 212-210. Its prospects in the Senate were uncertain.
The vote, which was supposed to be taken in five minutes, lasted more than 40 minutes as GOP leaders searched for the last two votes they needed to get the bill approved. They buttonholed lawmakers for last-minute lobbying as Democrats complained loudly that the vote should be closed. Finally two GOP lawmakers switched from "no" to "yes," giving the bill's supporters the margin of victory.
During the fight, some Democrats who had supported the legislation also switched their votes to "no." In the end, no Democrats voted for the legislation.
Rep. Joe Barton (search), R-Texas, said the bill streamlines the maze of permitting requirements for expanding or building refineries and directs the president to single out federal land where a refinery may be built. The changes could lead to construction of a new U.S. refinery within a year, he predicted.
But opponents said the legislation fails to address the rising cost of natural gas -- which will cause heating costs to soar this winter -- or deal with high prices motorists are paying at the pump. Instead, they argued, it will allow the oil industry to avoid environmental rules and force states and communities to accept refineries they don't want.
"Using Hurricane Katrina as their excuses the Republicans are again pushing their special interest agenda," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, including "all the special favors to the industry that were too extreme" for Congress last summer when it passed energy legislation.
But Barton said the need for more refineries was made obvious by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The hurricanes shut down a dozen refineries and disrupted a fifth of the country's gasoline supply.
The GOP legislation would give the federal government greater say in locating a refinery, at times, critics said, over community or state objections. It directs the president to select a number of closed military bases and other federal land available for refineries.
The bill also would limit to six the different blends of gasoline and diesel fuel that refiners would be required to produce, reversing a trend of using so-called "boutique" fuels to satisfy clean air demands. State officials complained the provision could limit states' ability to implement federal clean air requirements.
"The bill weakens state and federal environmental standards ... and gives a break to wealthy oil companies while doing little or nothing to affect oil prices," complained Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., one of 13 Republicans who voted against the measure.
With prices soaring, "oil companies now have all the profits and incentives they need to build new refineries" without government help, he maintained.
Barton countered that the legislation would give industry more "certainty" that a refinery project will not be delayed "without lessening any environmental law now on the books. ... The bill sets in motion a chain of events for lowering gas prices for Americans."
Attempts to add requirements that automakers increase vehicle fuel economy and a measure aimed at producing more natural gas were thwarted by GOP leaders who strictly limited the ability of lawmakers to amend the bill.
"Natural gas is an issue this (Congress) needs to deal with," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who was prevented under House rules for the bill from offering a proposal that would have opened offshore natural gas resources to drilling.
Among the groups trying to kill the bill were the National League of Cities (search), nine state attorneys general, most environmental organizations and groups representing state officials in charge of implementing federal clean air requirements. They said the bill would hinder their ability to ensure clean and healthy air.