Energy Package Clears Senate Committee

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

A Senate panel reached bipartisan agreement on energy legislation yesterday, after years of failing to craft a measure that had broad support.

Supporters said the legislation would help ease high prices by encouraging the development of more energy. The bill provides incentives for construction of nuclear plants, renewable energy facilities, and plants that burn coal using technology that spews fewer pollutants than traditional plants. It also seeks more oil and natural gas development on federal land.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill 21 to 1, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) voting against it. Members of the committee praised the bipartisan approach of Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who crafted the legislation with the panel's ranking Democrat, Jeff Bingaman (N.M.). Officials said they expect the measure to go to the floor after the Senate returns June 6 from a recess.

Supporters acknowledge the bill would do little in the short term to ease gasoline prices. Opponents, including Wyden, said it would benefit big energy companies and provide little or no relief for consumers.

The Senate bill lacks a number of controversial provisions included in energy legislation approved by the House last month -- setting the stage for difficult negotiations when the two bills go to a House-Senate conference committee.

The House legislation calls for drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the Senate version does not. Both chambers have approved budget resolutions that anticipate revenue from drilling in the refuge, and lawmakers must approve additional legislation before drilling can occur.

The House approved a number of financial incentives for oil and gas production not in the Senate bill. Unlike the Senate, the House included a controversial measure to shield the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, from defective-product lawsuits. The additive has been linked to groundwater pollution in several states.

In 2003, energy legislation died after a filibuster in the Senate, in part because of a dispute over MTBE. Officials said they did not know how the issue would be resolved between the two chambers this year.

"Everybody knows that it is . . . a real stumbling block," Domenici said of MTBE. "So we are committed to work with the House, work with the White House to come up with a solution. . . . If you ask me how to do it -- you see if I knew how to do it we would already do it. So I don't know how to do it yet."

President Bush has repeatedly called on lawmakers to approve energy legislation as a way to help ease prices. White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said the president was pleased that the House and Senate committee had approved energy bills but declined to say which version he favors.

The Senate bill contains some measures that opponents said would be likely to face debate when the full Senate considers it -- including a provision to give federal regulators authority over states on locating liquefied natural gas terminals. Supporters said the provision is needed to ensure enough terminals are built to satisfy demand, while opponents said it would force terminals on communities that do not want them.

The Senate measure also calls for an inventory of offshore oil and gas reserves, which some lawmakers said could lead to drilling in areas now off limits.

The bill would increase the amount of ethanol used in gasoline, and it would repeal a federal law that limits mergers between utility holding companies. Supporters said doing away with the Public Utility Holding Company Act would lead to more investment in new transmission lines.

The Senate measure would cost no more than $2 billion, Domenici said. That does not include $11 billion in energy tax incentives that the Senate Finance Committee plans to consider.

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