Lawmakers Near Agreement on Energy Bill

House and Senate negotiators are awaiting completion of an $11.5 billion tax package before giving final approval to an sweeping compromise energy bill (search) that Congress hopes to send to President Bush by week's end.

The conferees approved the non-tax measures early Tuesday in a session that lasted well past midnight, maneuvering through dozens of amendments, including one aimed at blunting China's attempt to purchase U.S. energy companies.

Throughout the negotiations, conference leaders took precautions to avoid provisions that might prompt a Senate filibuster, which they feared would doom energy legislation as it did two years ago.

But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the Senate's chief negotiator, warned that a provision calling for an inventory of oil and gas resources in coastal waters — which conferees voted to keep in the bill — could prompt a filibuster (search) attempt by Florida senators.

Still, he said, he's confident that will be overcome, although he said Senate approval might be delayed until Friday.

Congress has been thwarted repeatedly over the past four years in attempts to enact energy legislation, although Bush first called for a new national energy blueprint in 2001, only months after taking office.

With soaring gasoline and other energy prices, Bush challenged Congress to give him a bill before it begins its August recess. Even so, Bush and the lawmakers acknowledged the bill includes little, if anything, to reduce gasoline or other energy costs in the short term.

The broad legislation includes measures to spur construction of new nuclear power plants, promote ways to reduce pollution from coal and provides a boon to farmers by requiring refiners to double the use of corn-based ethanol (search) in gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012.

It also would:

— Provide subsidies and tax breaks for wind, geothermal and solar industries.

— Require new efficiency standards for commercial appliances from air conditioners to refrigerators.

- Extend daylight saving time by a month to save energy.

— Require utilities to meet federal reliability standards for the electric transmission grid, hoping to avoid future blackouts such as struck in the summer of 2003.

— Eases the way for more imports of liquefied natural gas by giving federal regulators final say over import terminals.

— Provides loan guarantees and other subsidies for clean energy technologies and new nuclear reactors. It would authorize a $1.8 billion program to promote clean coal technologies.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the conference chairman, called the legislation "the most comprehensive energy bill in the last 30 or 40 years."

But some Democrats criticized the bill for providing cash-flush energy companies a mountain of tax subsidies, loan guarantees and support such as help to pay for deep-water oil exploration and drilling.

"These are the wealthiest companies in America. We shouldn't be subsidizing them," complained Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Responding to a Chinese company's recent move to buy California-based Unocal (search), the conferees including a provision to require the government to wait for completion of a 120-day security review by the Pentagon and other agencies before the government's Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States can trigger its formal review.

"I think we ought to slow things down," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said, joining House conferees in strong support of the measure.

The provision, opposed by the White House, reflected the serious concern by many in Congress over China's attempt to buy California-based Unocal, or other U.S. energy companies.

Working well past midnight, the conferees addressed dozens of amendments to the wide-ranging bill.

Separately, congressional tax writers were expected to finish an energy package expected to cost about $11.5 billion in tax breaks for both energy production and conservation. The tax discussions have been behind closed doors and no details were available.

Some lawmakers said the bill should have included more to promote energy savings.

Dorgan tried to include a Senate-approved measure that would have required the president to develop a program to reduce future oil use by 1 million barrels a day. It was rejected.

An attempt by Markey to strip from the bill loan guarantees for new energy technologies, including development of the next generation of nuclear reactors also failed.

The conferees approved a White House proposal to provide "risk insurance" against regulatory delays for companies that want to build a new nuclear power plant. The measure, highlighted by Bush in a speech last April, would apply for the first six reactors built.

The requirement for an inventory of offshore oil and gas resources was criticized as a prelude to drilling in coastal waters now off limits including off Florida.

"This is the first step to oil drilling in areas now off limits," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Supporters of the measure argued the government and industry should know what resources are available even if drilling isn't planned.

One of the most contentious environmental issues of past energy debates, whether to drill for oil in an Alaska wildlife refuge, became a non-issue this time. The House approved such drilling, but the Senate ignored the issue. It was not included.

Another thorny issue, involving product liability protection for makers of the gasoline additive MTBE (search), was resolved when House conferees abandoned the measure.