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Editorial

New and Unimproved

Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A16

"IT'S ABOUT gas prices, gas prices, gas prices." That is how House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) explained the House Republicans' passage of an energy bill yesterday. Yet President Bush, in a major energy speech on Wednesday, conceded that "an energy bill wouldn't change the price at the pump today." We are inclined to take the president's view, not only because it's silly to pretend that a single piece of legislation would immediately affect drivers, but because this particular piece of legislation is unlikely to bring them any relief -- ever.

For -- hard though it is to believe -- this is indeed almost exactly the same energy bill that the House passed last year, but that never passed the Senate. It contains just about all of the provisions that were controversial before, mandating drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and relieving the makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that appears to poison drinking water, of liability. It also contains some new measures that will make it easier for the oil, gas and hydroelectric power industries to defy local environmental and other regulations. More to the point, it will fail to give this country the truly revolutionary energy policy it desperately needs. Instead of pointing the way toward an eventual transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources -- a transition that would have environmental as well as national security benefits -- the bill will simply make Americans even more dependent on oil and gas than they are now.

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As before, the bill contains sizable subsidies for the oil and gas industries (and all kinds of other groups as well) although Mr. Bush himself has pointed out that in a time of high prices, this is hardly the economic sector that needs the most help. More important is what the bill does not contain: Any measures to limit automobile fuel consumption, one of the main sources of high fossil fuel demand -- and pollution -- in this country. Not that a congressional vote is necessary: The president could raise auto mileage standards simply through regulation if he chose to do so.

There is some hope that the Senate will at least be able to modify this bill. The Senate Energy Committee chairman, Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), has said, for example, that he will not try to put the objectionable MTBE provisions into the Senate bill. There are hints, too, that Senate Republicans, realizing they could once again have trouble passing energy legislation without Democratic cooperation, are looking for compromises. But if they can't get major changes to this legislation, senators should prepare to stop it. Once again, gridlock would be an improvement over this House measure.


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