House committees today are scheduled to start considering legislation designed to encourage construction of refineries and new drilling for oil and natural gas, including measures long sought by industry that have been given new life by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Supporters of the legislation said the hurricanes highlighted a need to expand the domestic oil industry, to keep consumer prices down. Opponents said lawmakers were using the hurricanes as an excuse to approve measures that would lead to more pollution.
President Bush in August signed an energy bill that sought to expand domestic production of oil and other sources of energy. Some of the measures being considered by the House, or slightly different versions of them, were considered as part of the energy bill but were not approved.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the Resources Committee, sponsored the bills that will be marked up in their respective committees. Some Democrats on those committees said they were displeased with the proposals and would try to change them.
Pombo's bill would allow states to authorize drilling off their coasts in areas where doing so has been prohibited. It also would allow drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Barton said his legislation is designed to encourage more refinery construction. As demand for gasoline in the United States has increased, refineries have not expanded as rapidly.
Even before the hurricanes, gasoline supplies were tight and refineries were running at capacity. Consumer advocates blame the industry for not investing enough in new production while the industry blames regulation and concerns about profitability of new refineries.
"Gasoline prices are very, very high for working Americans that have to use their vehicles to drive to and from work," Barton said. "We're not going to be able to get those gasoline prices down at retail if we can't build more refinery capacity for this country."
Barton's staff said his bill would change "cumbersome procedures" for new refineries and reduce the number of specialized blends of gasoline used in the United States. The bill also would change regulations to encourage construction of more oil pipelines.
Environmentalists said the Barton legislation would make significant changes in the law by relaxing several pollution control requirements under the Clean Air Act. They said the bill would eliminate requirements that refiners and other industrial polluters install modern pollution-control equipment when they expand. Barton disputed that.
"What they're doing here is really immoral," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which works on environmental issues. "It's just very, very ugly that they are using people's concerns about Katrina and Rita to make our air dirtier and ruin our coastlines."
"We're not going to do anything in this bill to make air dirtier," Barton said.