Plainly irked at the tactics of Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, the Senate Energy Committee voted yesterday to squelch an administration plan to subsidize East Coast oil imports at the expense of the rest of the country.
Opponents including Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) denounced the plan as an attempt to win New England votes for the administration's beleaguered enegy bill. Weicker said he wanted no part of any "deal struck behind closed doors," while Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) said refiners in his state were "apoplectic" over the plan.
The vote came in a lively markup session on a bill authorizing Schlesinger's new cabinet department to spend $12.7 billion next fisal year. The East Coast aid plan disposed of, committee members spent the morning adding millions of dollars to the bill for various pet products. Johnson meanwhile, added other amendments aimed at protecting certain independent crude oil resellers and marketers from Energy Department regulatory action.
These special relief measures, Johnston told colleagues, did not apply to the major oil companies, but he readily allowed that "some pretty hefty-sized people" would benefit.
James Abourezk (D-S.D.), meanwhile, took exception to the unabashed logrolling advocated at the outset of the meeting by Wendell Ford (D-Ky.).
Ford got the committee to authorize an extra $17.5 million to develop a number of "unconventional natural gas resources," then asked for $1 million more so DOE could hire more staffers to administer its "coal loan guarantee" program. He said the loans would go only to "small companies not affiliated with a major oil company" and only if they are currently producing "less than 1 million tons a year."
"The purpose, I gather, is to get mom-and-pop coal companies into business," Abourezk said sarcastically.
"A colleague just told me that if I knew everything that was in this bill, I'd go into permanent shock," Abourezk continued. "I'm just about half there right now. I don't understand why we have to have loan guarantees for coal companies to mine coal when the price of coal is what it is now" - as high as $23 a ton.
Abourezk charged that the expanding Department of Energy is turning into "the most gigantic windfall I've ever seen . . . it's like cancer cells in the human body."
By then, after being advised that the expanded coal-loan guarantee staff he wanted would cost only $595,000, Ford had offered to "split the difference" and settle for $800,000. Apparently annoyed at Abourezk's persistence, Frank Church (D-Idaho) who was serving as chairman, suggested that this was a generous compromise.
Abourezk pressed for a roll call and was flattened, 13 to 1.
Johnston then brought up his amendments, beginning with one to prohibit the complicated plan to increase subsidies for East Coast refiners and oil importers at the expense of refiners and their customers elsewhere.
Calling the proposal "indefensible from the standpoint of fairness," Johnston said it would discourage construction of domestic refineries when "we are about 3 to 4 million barrels a day short in refining capacity" and are bestowing massive benefits instead on Caribbean refineries such as those operated by Shell and Exxon.
Noting that he was departing from parochial New England interest, Weicker said he thought it more important to disavow Schlesinger's apparent strategy for drumming up votes for the administration's energy package, now stalled in a House-Senate conference over natural gas pricing. The Connecticut Republican denounced the Schlesinger move as "extremely offensive."
The committee then voted 17 to 1 to prohibit the half-billion-dollar-a-year subsidy. The lone dissenter, John A. Durkin (D-N.H.), said he was no big fan of Schlesinger and not at all impressed with the secretary's "bag of goodies."
Durkin, who remains opposed to the national gas compromise now pening, emphasized that he was no party to any deal. "The president gave away everything but the furniture in the Oval Office" to drum up votes, Durkin said, but he did not think the higher subsidies for New England were part of that campaign. He saw them instead as an effort to offset the blow New England will feel when the administration imposes import fees.
James A. McClure (R-Idaho) observed that some sections of the West are as heavilys dependent on Canadian natural gas as New England is on imported heating oil but don't look to Washington for subsidies.
"You don't pay what we pay," Durkin replied.
"Wanna bet" McClure retorted.
Two other Johnson amendments were quickly approved of unanimous consent.
One would expand the so-called "Findley amendment" by forbidding DOE from issuing remedial orders and ordering refunds for past violations with "retroactive interpretations of clarifications" of DOE regulations - except in certain limited circumstances.
Department officials have opposed such an "escape clause" as far too broad, but no one at yesterday's hearing asked what the administration's position was.
The change was sought by the Independent Fuel Terminal Operators Association, concentrated heavily in New England; the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers Council and some independent crude oil resellers from Louisiana, Colorado and Wyoming represented by Washington attorney John Zentay.