Amid mounting controversy, the House Interior Committee and a House Commerce subcommittee yesterday formally approved a key part of President Carter's energy package, a board to cut red tape on new energy projects.
But the two House panels differ in the amount of power the board would have to waive state, federal and local laws, and opponents of a broad grant of authority to the board began organizing to fight it.
Representatives of the AFL-CIO, the National League of Cities, Ralph Nader's Congress Watch and several environmental groups met to remove the waiver of various laws, which is contained in the Commerce subcommittee version. That bill goes to the full committee next week.
Proponents and opponents agree that the fight over the board's ability to waive laws, such as the Clean air Act to expedite synthetic fuel and other energy projects will be the major conflict.
Opponents favor a bill reported out by Rep. Morris K. Udall's (D-Ariz.) House Interior Committee, which would allow the board to waive timetables and expedite federal, state and local proce dures, but which would not allow the board to waive the substantive policies set by law.
The Commerce subcommittee would allow waiving laws, but make such waivers subject to a one-House veto.
A Senate energy panel is marking up a similar bill, but has not gotten to that part. However, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said yesterday he believes the panel will vote to allow the board to waive the law and he will have to take his fight against it to the Senate floor.
"The board could waive any law, labor laws, equal opportunities laws, anything that stood in the way of a project being completed," Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) said.
Because of an amendment adopted yesterday, which would prevent a state or locality from writing new laws to stop a project once it was under way, Wirth said people in the affected area would be powerless to protect themselves.
"If an oil shale project was dumping salt in the Colorado River, there would be nothing we could do about it. When states and localities find out what's going on there's going to be an uproar. This is a blatant violation of state and local governments' rights and duties to protect citizens," he said.
Wirth comes from a western state where oil shale projects are planned. These plans call for large quantities of water, and, like other Western members of Congress, Wirth says he fears the synfuel projects could use up water needed for agriculture and other uses.
Wirth also says the wholesale waiver of laws by a board is unconstitutional, and says a Justice Department letter on the constitutionality backs him up on that.
Backers of the waiver, such as Rep. Clarence J. Btown (R-Ohio), says that, because of the one-House veto, Congress still maintains control of its law-making rights. The provision allows Congress to look at projects on a case-by-case basis.
"I'm not sure I won't vote with Tim Wirth on the water problems in Colorado," Brown said, but he argued that national energy needs make it essential that there be no state and local delay.
Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Calif.) put it another way. "This is a stinking bill but it's necessary. If Carter had gone ahead with production projects early in his term, we wouldn't need this."
But Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the waiver "an energy gulf of Tonkin resolution," opening the door to giving the executive branch vast power to undo environmental laws.
"This gives the president a crown," Rafe Pomerance, of Friends of the Earth, said.
The issue will be fought out in the full Commerce Committee next week, when Wirth, who lost the fight in the subcommittee, will again try to delete the board's power to waive substance of law.
In addition to waiving the laws, the bills would speed up court processes and require appeals to be filed quickly.
Both House bills have a five-member energy mobilization board, which would pick prljects for the "fast-track," then expedite required governmental procedures.
The Senate bill has a three-man board, but the chairman would be a "czar" who would make all the decisions once the board bakced him on which projects to fast-track.
Delays on environmental regulations, such as eventually killed a pipeline project in California, caused Congress and Carter to want to cut red tape and regulations.