The first large part of President Carter's energy program hit the Senate floor yesterday and promptly was met with charges that it threatens the environment and encroaches on the rights of state and local governments.
The bill would create an energy mobilization board to cut red tape on selected large energy projects, such as synthetic fuel plants. At issue is how much power the board should have to override other agencies and laws.
On one side is a coalition of environmentalists and state and local government groups; on the other the administration and its backers, in this case, an odd-bedfellow coalition of business and labor -- the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers, for instance.
Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Bennett Johnston (D-La.) are leaders on the administration's side. Leading the opposition are Sens. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine).
The administration and backers of the bill want the board to be empowered to set a two-year deadline for decisions on projects. If a state, local or federal agency fails to make a decision in that time, they want the board to be able to make the decision instead. And once a project is approved, they want to prevent future laws from impeding it.
Environmentalists and state and local government groups are backing a substitute bill, offered by Muskie and Ribicoff, that would not permit the board to take over agency decision-making and would not waive future laws.
Waiving future laws would "make it impossible to protect people from chemical poisons produced by the new energy facilities if those poisons are discovered after the facility is built and make it impossible for the government to correct its mistakes," Muskie said. "Under the committee bill we would be literally and dangerously helpless."
But Johnston said the Muskei-Ribicoff substitute "guts this bill." It does "nothing to help expedite the time schedule, puts another layer of bureaucracy in and injects the court into it, too," he said.
Johnston added, "The energy mobilization board offers the best hope in the short term for reducing our dependence upon OPEC oil. The nation is now paralyzed by a bureaucracy that can delay vital energy projects for months and even years . . . We should either give the board the power to get the job done or not create a board at all."
Lobbyists said they expect the vote to be close. If the substitute is defeated, an amendment knocking out the waiver of future laws has drawn the support or a coalition of environmentalists and conservatives and still has a chance, they said.