The Senate gave President Carter an easy energy victory yesterday, approving 68 to 25 a bill to create his proposed energy mobilization board.
The four-member board is intended to cut red tape and speed completion of major energy projects.
The bill, first large part of the president's new energy plan to clear the Senate, goes to the House, where two versions have been reported to the floor.
Carter's two other energy proposals this summer were creation of a quasi-governmental Energy Security Corp. to help start synthetic fuels production, and imposition of a "windfall profits" tax on oil to fund the corporation.
The Senate Energy Committee is working on the first proposal, but funding for new energy projects is in doubt. The Finance Committee, headed by Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), is toying with a windfall profits bill that has passed the House.
As approved by the Senate, the energy mobilization board would have power to select an unlimited number of energy projects -- but not projects involving nuclear power -- for so-called "fast-track" treatment.
The major fight on the floor was how much power the board would have to cut red tape on each project. The Energy Committee version of the bill said that once a project was on the fast track list, all other federal, state and local regulatory agencies would have two years to approve or disapprove it.
If any agency failed to meet a deadline, the board could seek a court order requiring it to act, or could make the decision for the agency, using the agency's criteria in the process.
In addition, the board could waive application of federal, state or local laws to a project, if they were adopted after construction on the project began.
This power to take over agency decision-making and waive federal, state and local laws was vigorously opposed by a coalition of environmentalist and state and local government groups, such as the League of Cities and National Governors Association.
Environmentalists feared the board would be used to evade clean air and water laws and other environmental statutes. State and local government groups argued the provisions would trample states rights and rights of people in localities around the projects.
To preserve these provisions, the White House lobbied hard, putting together a coalition of energy industry, business and labor groups to help, including the Business Roundtable and the AFL-CIO, rarely on the same side of any issue.
The bill does not allow the board to waive labor, civil rights and water rights laws, or to waive a law if it endangers public health or safety. A substitute bill putting further restrictions on the power of the board offered by Sens. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), was defeated, 58 to 39.
But floor leader Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) did compromise on the issue by agreeing to allow the secretary of interior or the Environmental Protection Agency to veto any waiver of law that the board proposed.
In debate, Energy Committee Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) argued the board is needed to avoid such delays as those that tied up for five years an attempt by Standard Oil of Ohio to build an oil pipeline eastward from California. Jackson said the Senate should focus "on the clear and present danger" of a Middle East oil cutoff, not the remote and hypothetical dangers" of the powers of the board.
But Muskie predicted the bill's controversial provisions would be challenged in court, slowing up energy development instead of speeding it. "If they think they are short-cutting anything with this, they could not be more wrong," Muskie said.
The board would consist of a chairman and three members appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation. Only the chairman would be flul time, and he or she would act as a "czar" making all decisions, except which projects to put on the fast track.
All four Maryland and Virginia senators voted yes on the bill.