President Bush promised in his State of the Union address that his administration would soon unveil its proposed national energy policy, but Congress has decided not to wait.
Spurred by a Persian Gulf conflict that many of their constituents believe is a war over oil, key members of both houses are backing far-reaching proposals that would change the way the nation generates, uses and pays for its energy. Many of the proposals are as controversial as they are sweeping, virtually ensuring drawn-out legislative battles this year over oil imports, energy taxes, auto fuel efficiency, solar power, nuclear waste and a host of other issues.
"This is our biggest opportunity in a decade to take a big new initiative" on energy policy, House energy and power subcommittee Chairman Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.) said. "Action is required if we are going to meet our needs for economic growth in a manner that is environmentally acceptable."
Sharp introduced bills that would require the states to promote energy conservation, expedite construction of natural gas pipelines and expand the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and promised that more measures will follow.
Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have introduced a bill that would rewrite many of the nation's energy laws, including the Depression-era law that regulates the electric utility industry.
The Bush administration has been working since the summer of 1989 on a comprehensive "National Energy Strategy." A thick report, accompanied by proposals for legislation, is expected to be submitted to Congress by month's end.
In the State of the Union address, Bush said he would propose "a comprehensive National Energy Strategy that calls for energy conservation and efficiency, increased development and greater use of alternative fuels" -- that is, fuels other than oil and gasoline.
But environmental and consumer groups and many members of Congress have long feared that White House officials led by Chief of Staff John H. Sununu would stifle any proposals by the Energy Department to mandate conservation, impose new taxes to discourage consumption or spend tax money to promote the use of renewable energy sources such as solar power.
Their fears were enhanced by a Jan. 17 letter to Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization from Linda Stuntz, the deputy undersecretary for policy who has coordinated development of the energy strategy.
The administration "will rely on market mechanisms, not 'command and control' programs to achieve our objectives," she said. The energy strategy Bush sends to Congress "is unlikely to advocate policies that would federally direct choices of fuels and technologies."
That is consistent with the administration's free-market orientation, but critics say it unrealistically limits the actions the government might take. For example, an Energy Department staff analysis said that one option for reducing oil imports would be to provide federal tax credits or other incentives for domestically produced alternative fuels such as shale oil, but noted that this would cost money and "circumvent normal market competition."
This approach is not going to satisfy the scores of environmental groups and consumer organizations that have been demanding a strong policy that would limit oil imports and emphasize conservation rather than production.
In their view, shared by key members of Congress such as Sharp and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), acting chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, expected administration proposals to revive nuclear power and permit oil exploration in environmentally sensitive areas are not acceptable unless balanced by measures to promote conservation and renewable fuels.
"The White House should have learned a lesson" from last year's debate over the Clean Air Act, said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. "There are a lot of members and constituencies that have their own agenda when it comes to energy. None of them can win the day unless it's part of a comprehensive proposal. This is a give-and-take process and the White House is going to get left out."
Calling it a "second front" in the war, Panetta introduced his energy bill on Jan. 18, shortly after U.S. warplanes started bombing Iraq. Among other things, it would set a floor price of $16 a barrel for domestically produced oil to encourage production -- the current price of about $21 is widely expected to decline sharply when the Persian Gulf War ends, discouraging investment in domestic drilling -- while increasing federal funding for investment in mass transit to reduce oil consumption.
Some of Panetta's proposals are similar to Sharp's and to parts of the Johnston-Wallop measure. Sharp introduced his as separate bills, inviting other House members to cosponsor them or attach their proposals. He said Congress is determined to enact energy legislation but it is too soon to tell whether a single bill can be fashioned that Bush would not veto.
The bills proposed by Sharp would increase the Strategic Petroleum Reserve from the current target size of 750 million barrels to 1.5 billion and require oil companies to pay for it by setting aside a portion of their imports. The Johnston-Wallop bill contains a similar provision. Sharp's bills also would expedite federal licensing of interstate natural gas pipelines and require state regulators to consider amending electric utility rates to encourage investment in conservation equipment.
Neither Sharp nor Johnston endorsed a bill introduced last month by a bipartisan group of senators that would require a 40 percent increase in motor vehicle fuel efficiency by 2001. Sharp said he would soon introduce a similar measure, perhaps setting a slightly lower target. The Johnston-Wallop measure directs the Transportation Department to study the potential efficiency gains.
The fuel efficiency bill, known by the acronym CAFE for "corporate average fuel economy," has the virtually unanimous support of conservation and environmental groups, which say it could save up to 2.8 million barrels of oil a day when fully effective.
It passed the House and came within a whisker of passing the Senate last year, despite vigorous opposition from the Bush administration and the auto industry. Anticipating another bruising fight, the auto industry is supporting an organization calling itself the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, joining fleet owners, auto safety advocates, farmers organizations and some consumer groups to fight the CAFE bill sponsored by Sens. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).
The Johnston-Wallop package proposed to loosen the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which in effect prohibits electric utilities from expanding across state lines and limits non-utility corporations from competing with utilities to generate electricity.
Sharp did not include a similar measure but endorsed it in principle.
The Johnston-Wallop bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and earmark the government's royalty revenue for energy efficiency uses, such as aid to public transportation. Other measures introduced since Congress convened would require states to amend their building codes to encourage energy conservation; increase federal funding for solar and geothermal energy; reinstate the "windfall profits tax" on oil companies; and restructure the government's Uranium Enrichment Enterprise, the government-owned industry that makes nuclear fuel.