Senate Rejects Va. Offshore Drilling

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) failed to win approval yesterday for a proposal to allow exploration for natural gas off the Virginia coast, as procedural maneuvering and partisan divisions held up key parts of the Senate's energy package.

Meanwhile, a long-awaited proposal on vehicle fuel-efficiency standards was released by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who is seeking to blunt the impact of the Senate bill on the cash-strapped U.S. auto industry.

The wrangling illustrates the difficulty of reconciling competing interests to reduce dependency on foreign energy sources, protect the environment and support an ailing domestic auto industry.

Warner sought to amend the Senate package to allow Virginia to seek an exemption from a 25-year-old freeze on offshore drilling. He was outmaneuvered by New Jersey Democrats Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, who saw the proposal as an environmental threat to their state's shoreline.

"An oil spill off the Virginia coast could easily devastate the shoreline of our state and states up and down the Eastern Seaboard," Lautenberg said.

Menendez slowed voting on the measure by attaching modifications that would require Virginia to get approval from neighboring states before drilling.

However, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), noted the nation's robust demand for natural gas and challenged other states to take Virginia's lead to step up to produce it. "John Warner's bill would be the first energy bill to produce energy," Domenici said.

Through procedural wrangling, Menendez forced Warner to withdraw his amendment early in the afternoon. It emerged again later in the evening for a vote but was defeated.

Senators also set aside a proposal by Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to require utilities to use more wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. Republicans blocked debate on the measure after their attempt to pass an alternative proposal was defeated.

On vehicle fuel efficiency, Levin has been working for weeks to come up with a compromise that could win support in the chamber while satisfying growing demands for the first major increases in vehicle mileage standards since the 1970s.

Levin, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) unveiled what Bond has described as a bipartisan alternative to legislation already approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. Opponents say it would water down the Commerce Committee's measure, which calls for cars and trucks to achieve an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with 4 percent annual increases thereafter until 2030.

Levin's legislation, which is being sponsored by Bond and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), sets requirements for a 36 miles-per-gallon average for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2022.

The proposal also requires that by 2015 half of all vehicles automakers sell be equipped with advanced fuel-efficiency technology such as hybrid or diesel engines or be so-called flex-fuel vehicles that can burn ethanol or other biofuels.

Levin dropped language in the amendment opposed by proponents of tougher fuel economy standards that would give automakers a loophole out of the new standards.

Auto lobbyists are supporting the Levin proposal and said this week they were eager to see the debate come to an end. The legislation is expected to come to a vote next week.

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, said the Pryor-Bond-Levin bill is "no more than an attempt to weaken and delay" fuel efficiently standards. "I can't imagine that this is going to change a thing," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company