Facing consumer outrage about high fuel prices and anxiety about the impact of the Persian Gulf crisis on the U.S. economy, both political parties are trying to stake out the high ground on energy policy.
The result, in the absence of any strategy by the Bush administration, is that energy policy is being made on many fronts simultaneously and often in contradictory fashion through such means as the oil and gas tax provisions of the budget agreement, use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and in the conference committee negotiations over the new Clean Air Act.
With the support of conservation and environmental groups, Democrats have accused the administration of failing to act decisively to hold down oil prices or articulating a comprehensive approach.
The Energy Department has been working more than a year to develop the long-term national energy policy the Democrats accuse the administration of not having, but it is not scheduled to be submitted to President Bush until December.
In the meantime, the agency has proposed modest approaches to encourage domestic oil consumption and discourage consumption -- proposals that the Democrats have ridiculed by focusing on one item, a suggestion that motorists keep tires properly inflated.
Last week Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee struck back at the Democrats, and moved out in front of the White House, by introducing sweeping energy legislation.
Rep. Norman F. Lent (R-N.Y.), the committee's ranking minority member, said the bill is a challenge to Democrats who have been criticizing the administration. "Here's our plan, where's yours?" he said.
The bill is a complete package that proposes incentives for conservation and production, streamlining of regulatory processes, promotion of renewable and alternative fuels and a novel proposal that all major federal projects be accompanied by an "energy impact statement" similar to an environmental impact statement.
There is no possibility that the Republican energy bill will be enacted as submitted because it contains several proposals so controversial that they would provoke furious arguments if submitted as free-standing bills. But Lent, saying, "We must put a stop to legislative paralysis" on energy issues, said it might serve to "jump-start the Congress" into taking action on energy next year.
But in the meantime, Congress has taken action on a number of fronts. In the past week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to extend the scope and duration of the ban on offshore oil drilling announced by Bush last summer.
Environmental groups hailed the vote as a signal that Congress would not be pushed by the Persian Gulf crisis into giving a free hand to oil drillers.
But the same environmental groups were outraged by another congressional action -- the tax provisions of the budget agreement that increase tax incentives for oil drilling while eliminating them for geothermal, solar and other renewable sources of energy.
The plan submitted by the Energy and Commerce Republicans at least gives GOP lawmakers a shield against Democratic charges that their party has done nothing about energy except send troops to Saudi Arabia, energy specialists said. But it also could provide a starting point for a serious attempt to craft a comprehensive package that would satisfy conservationists and environmental groups as well as producers.
"Everyone is going to have an energy package now," said Bill Magavern, energy lobbyist for Public Citizen. "The Energy and Commerce Republicans want to have their piece in there so they can say they are doing something."
"Some of the things in that bill are just taken from other pieces of pending legislation already introduced by the Democrats, but some of the things are very good," said James Wolf, executive director of the Alliance to Save Energy.
Wolf said he was especially pleased that one section of the bill would eliminate federal income tax on rebates given by utilities to customers who install energy-saving equipment.
"It's terrific to have the Republicans behind that," he said.
Other provisions of the bill would:
Provide tax incentives to business to encourage use of public transportation.
Extend the federal tax credit for fuels from unconventional sources such as oil shale.
Remove size restrictions on generating plants powered by renewable fuels such as wind and solid waste.
Encourage competition in the electricity business by exempting some generators from the Public Utility Holding Company Act.
Offer tax incentives to oil and gas drillers.
Open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Permit utilities with "superior operating histories" at their nuclear plants to build and operate nuclear power plants for other utilities.
Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, appearing before the committee, said the Republican bill was "consistent with what we're doing" in developing the National Energy Strategy, which he said will be "action-oriented." To Democrats Watkins offered assurances that the National Energy Strategy will focus on conservation.
"Without that we know it will be dead on arrival," he said.