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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Energy Bill Update

Air Date: Week of

Republican lawmakers say they’re near completion of a comprehensive bill to increase energy supply and reliability. But Democrats complain they've been kept in the dark as environmental provisions were cut and industry's pet projects were added. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A massive energy bill is nearing completion in Congress. President Bush made national energy policy one of his goals, and the August blackout added a sense of urgency. Republican leaders and industry supporters say the measure will improve energy supply and reliability. Democrats and environmental and public interest groups say it’s a bad mix of pork projects and giveaways for industry, as well as costly to public health and the environment. Living on Earth's Jeff Young has this update.

YOUNG: Republicans control the House Senate conference committee hammering out the comprehensive energy bill. They hoped the public concern generated by the August 14 blackout would energize their effort to quickly rewrite and pass the bill. But Democrats complain the Republican domination of the conference has led to a blackout of information. Massachusetts Democratic Representative Ed Markey quoted an old country song to express his frustration.

MARKEY: “Oh, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.” This is basically a small close-knit group of lobbyists - oil, gas, coal, nuclear - who are meeting to draft their dream provisions. That is just fundamentally wrong.

YOUNG: Democrats complain Republicans arbitrarily cut environmental items like the renewable portfolio standards. The standards called for electricity retailers to increase the mix of power they offer from wind, solar and other renewable sources up to ten percent within 15 years. Fifty-three senators expressed strong bipartisan support for the idea on the very day Republican conferees cut it from the energy bill. In its place, watchdog groups say they found extra provisions favoring fossil fuel and nuclear interests. Anna Aurilio is legislative director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

AURILIO: These dirty pork barrel provisions have started popping up. There’s a coal plant in Minnesota designed to potentially buy off a senator and get them to flip their vote on the Arctic Refuge, for example. There’s a couple of nuclear plants around the country, as well, that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars and generate radioactive waste. These are all provisions that were not in either the House or Senate energy bill. It’s clear that it’s gonna benefit the industry lobbyists who drafted the bill and not the American public.

YOUNG: Industry lobbyists are not shy about the opportunity the bill presents. Veteran energy lobbyist Frank Maisano calls it “the mother lode” but says that does not mean the bill is just a wish list for his clients. Maisano says the bill should and will give the industry what it needs to increase the nation’s energy supply.

MAISANO: People in this country want their lights on. They want their cars started. They want to get gas without waiting in lines for cheap prices. Many times you have people in industry who are trying to solve those problems, and at the other side you have environmentalists who are looking at the glass half empty saying, “We can’t do that. We can’t do that. We can’t do that.”

YOUNG: But it’s not just environmentalists or even Democrats complaining about the bill. In Florida, most Republican lawmakers oppose an item calling for an inventory of offshore oil and gas reserves. Florida Republican Representative Jeff Miller calls the study a possible first step to more offshore drilling, and that makes it hard for him to support his party’s energy bill.

MILLER: The governor, most of the state legislature and all but one member of the U.S. House and Senate have said very clearly this is not what the citizens of the state of Florida want. We don’t want offshore drilling along the coast of Florida and we’ll do what we need to do to make sure that our coastline is protected.

YOUNG: Another contentious item deals with the gasoline additive known as MTBE. The chemical makes gas burn cleanly but also leaks from storage tanks into groundwater, causing widespread contamination that could cost billions to clean up. Oil lobbyists and powerful House members from Texas and Louisiana want the bill to protect MTBE makers from some contamination lawsuits.

Then, there’s another issue that could short-circuit the entire energy bill. House leaders still want some oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, something the Senate has twice voted down. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle warned Republicans a third vote would be strike three.

DASCHLE: ANWR will kill the energy bill if it’s in the bill and they just need to know that.

YOUNG: Negotiations will resume in mid October with conference leaders confident they are near the finish line on a bill that’s been almost three years in the making and will have implications for years, perhaps generations, to come. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: Various Artists “Lindbergh Palace Hotel Suite” The Royal Tenenbaums (Soundtrack) (Hollywood-2001)]



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