The House yesterday approved a wide-ranging energy bill that would permit new drilling in Alaska and give producers billions of dollars of incentives.
The 1,000-page bill was approved by a vote of 249 to 183 after a spirited debate over a provision providing legal protections to a gasoline additive linked to drinking-water contamination. Much of the legislation focuses on conventional sources of energy and provides relatively little for conservation and alternative forms of energy.
The measure calls for opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, and alters the Clean Air Act by giving localities whose polluted air comes from distant states more time to meet national air-quality standards. It would grant funding for research into oil and natural gas drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- at a cost as high as $2 billon.
At a time of surging energy costs, including gasoline prices well above $2 a gallon, supporters said the legislation eventually would help bring down prices. Opponents said it would not moderate consumer prices and instead would further inflate energy companies' soaring profits.
The House provided far more tax breaks to the oil and natural gas industry and less to alternative energy and efficiency than President Bush had proposed. Even so, the president believes the overall bill is "largely consistent" with what he is seeking, spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The House-passed bill is similar to legislation that was approved by a House-Senate conference committee in 2003. That measure died as the result of a Senate filibuster.
Senate leaders this year are trying to forge a bipartisan compromise. A Senate bill has not been introduced, but lawmakers said they expect to take up the matter soon.
Among provisions added to the House bill this year are an extension of Daylight Savings Time by two months and granting the federal government ultimate authority to determine where to locate liquefied natural gas terminals that receive imports by tanker. The House defeated a provision requiring increased automobile mileage and some other conservation measures.
Democrats forced a confrontation over shielding the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, from defective-product lawsuits, rekindling a dispute that contributed to the unraveling of the energy bill in 2003.
The additive, found to be leaking from underground storage tanks and contaminating groundwater in communities across the country, has prompted a number of lawsuits and cleanup bills that threaten producers with billions of dollars in penalties. Large oil companies and other producers of the additive have sought protection from Congress, saying the government had certified the additive as appropriate for use in meeting federal clean air standards.
Republican leaders originally refused to allow the full House to consider an amendment to strip the provision from the bill. But Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) succeeded in forcing a vote by citing rules allowing floor amendments to strip out provisions that would impose "unfunded mandates" on states and localities.
Capps cited a report from the Congressional Budget Office that the MTBE provision would create such a mandate because it could force governments to pay for cleanup.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the provision is a "disgraceful . . . giveaway" that was included at the behest of oil companies and was championed by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
"Not surprisingly, Tom DeLay and House Republicans are happy to oblige," Pelosi said. She later added: "Republicans aren't even giving MTBE polluters a slap on the wrist. They are giving them a pat on the back."
DeLay did not speak on the floor, but other supporters of the measure said MTBE deserves protection because of the government's mandate to reduce air pollution.
The effort to strip the provision from the bill failed by a vote of 213 to 219.