Environmentalists Lament Energy Bill

But environmentalists are in an uproar, and California lawmakers predict gasoline shortages and price spikes.

The impact of a broad energy bill passed by the Senate on Thursday can be expected to touch a wide array of people, industries and businesses — that is if it ever gets out of Congress. Although passed by a wide margin, 88-11, it must still be merged with a starkly different bill that the House passed last year.

After the Senate vote, President Bush appeared confident a compromise could be reached. Between the two bills, he said, there were "the elements of a comprehensive energy policy" that include "the major conservation and environmentally responsible production measures needed to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy."

This legislation "should increase our energy independence," said Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., although he made clear there were differences with the House. He call the Senate-passed bill "a far more responsible, progressive, consumer-friendly energy policy" than the House bill, which largely mirrored the president's priorities.

The Senate rejected Bush's top energy priority: oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That is expected to trigger a fight with the House, which approved such drilling and whose Republican leaders have shown no signs of backing down.

The Senate bill calls for $14.1 billion in energy tax subsidies ranging from help to refiners to meet sulfur-control regulations and reduce the cost of power from wind turbines to a credit for homeowners who want to buy a solar panel or put more insulation into their attic.

Overall, the tax benefits were about evenly divided between production and conservation and support for renewable energy sources, its supporters said.

The Senate's refusal to open the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil companies was one of the few victories for environmentalists over the six weeks that senators deliberated energy policy.

The disappointments ranged from rejection of even modest steps to improve automobile fuel efficiency to — in the final hours — stripping the bill of a requirement that the Energy Department impose the more aggressive efficiency standards for air conditioners that had been proposed by the Clinton administration.

"Finding environmentally friendly provisions in this bill is like looking for a needle in a haystack," complained Elizabeth Thompson, legislative director of Environmental Defense.

In rejecting a proposal to require automakers to meet a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon over the next dozen years, opponents of the measure argued that it would force manufactures to stop making large cars and threatened suburban soccer moms with the loss of their sport utility vehicles.

The claims were rebutted by supporters of the fuel economy improvements, who argued the technology exists for cars to be more fuel efficient and still save the SUV. In any case, neither the House nor Senate bills address the issue in any significant way, so the SUVs are safe no matter who's right.

The bill also would require more ethanol use in gasoline, resulting in a tripling of ethanol production to 5 billion gallons a year by 2012, a boon to farmers.

The ethanol mandate survived despite repeated attempts by senators from California and New York to have it removed, or at least phased in more slowly. When the Senate refused even to postpone its implementation for a year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused farm-state senators of ignoring the harm that might come to California, where she said a lack of ethanol could produce gasoline shortages and price spikes.

"We're being told it's good for corn farmers, so just take it," Feinstein said.

Other major provisions in the bill, covering more than 580 pages, included:

— A ban on use of the gasoline additive MTBE, which has been found to contaminate waterways in many states.

— Federal loan guarantees to spur private interest in building a $20 billion pipeline to carry natural gas from Alaska's North Slope into the continental United States.

— A requirement for utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity by 2019 from renewable fuels such as wind, solar energy and forest and agricultural wastes.

— Repeal of a Depression-era law that limits the operations of electricity holding companies.

— Wider authority for federal energy regulators to regulate wholesale electricity markets and transmission lines.