An Oct. 6 article about energy legislation pending in the House misstated the role of William Becker. He represents the interests of state and local air pollution authorities from across the nation. (Published 10/7/2005)

A House bill ostensibly aimed at easing the nation's energy crisis would dramatically weaken pollution laws by relaxing environmental standards on both oil refineries and aging power plants, several clean-air experts said.

The GOP's Gasoline for America's Security (GAS) Act -- which is expected to pass the House tomorrow -- would ease permitting rules for oil refineries, instruct the president to designate new refinery sites on at least three retired military bases and relax air pollution controls on thousands of industrial facilities across the country.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who sponsored the bill in response to rising gasoline prices and the damage recent hurricanes have wrought on Gulf Coast refineries, said the measures are essential to expanding the nation's energy production.

"We cannot stop hurricanes, but we can mitigate some of these adverse impacts on our energy infrastructure and our economy that hurricanes can have," Barton said last week before his panel approved the bill on a party-line voice vote. "We need to tackle this problem for one simple reason: Our country needs more oil refineries because the people who work for a living need gasoline to get to work."

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups have blasted the measure, saying it will do little to lower the cost of gas while taking a serious toll on public health. And while refineries and power plants have praised the bill, some industry officials said they were pushing for it because Barton's staff asked them to.

"Our job in cleaning up the air is daunting enough," said William Becker, who represents state and local air authorities in Washington state. The bill, he added, "is so over the top it's really inexcusable. It is the most blatant attack on state and local environmental authority that I've ever seen."

The bill would speed the approval of refinery permits by transferring legal challenges from state and local courts to the federal Court of Appeals in the District. It also creates a "regulatory insurance" program that allows a refinery to appeal to the government for compensation if operations are stalled by unforeseen regulation or litigation. The bill calls for the president to identify new refinery sites on federal land, possibly including wildlife refuges and national forests.

"It's to send a message to the refinery industry that America needs domestic capacity," said Barton's spokeswoman, Lisa Miller. "We shouldn't be brought to our knees by a natural disaster in one part of the country."

Some of the bill's biggest beneficiaries, however, said they welcome less regulation but cannot say whether it would translate into many new refineries. The United States has not built a refinery since 1976, and in a series of memos in the 1990s, major energy companies warned they needed to reduce the number of refineries to boost profits.

"I don't think you can honestly say there's a shortage of capacity, because there is worldwide capacity," said Edward Murphy, group director for refining and marketing at the American Petroleum Institute. "We did not go running up [to Capitol Hill] and say, 'Mr. Barton, will you please do this?' We are supportive of it."

Barton also added to the bill two provisions to revamp New Source Review, a program dating to the late 1970s that requires utilities and other industrial sources to install new pollution controls when they upgrade plants. That has earned him plaudits from such industry groups as the Edison Electric Institute, whose members generate more than half of the nation's electricity.

The bill would codify a Bush administration proposal, currently stalled in federal court, that would allow utilities and other industries to make improvements worth as much as 20 percent of their value without requiring new controls unless they emit more pollution on an hourly basis.

The institute issued a letter this week saying these provisions, inserted at the White House's request, would "provide much needed certainty to allow efficiency improvements and routine maintenance at generating facilities to go forward."

Both power plant and oil refinery officials said they had begun lobbying for the bill's passage at the request of Barton's aides. "They've asked us if we're supportive of the bill; we should indicate that we are," Murphy said.

Miller, Barton's aide, did not comment on whether Republicans enlisted lobbyists' aid for the bill but said supporters of the changes faced a difficult battle because veteran Democrats were so protective of a law that dates to 1970.

"I don't think what we're trying to do is controversial," she said, adding that Barton hopes to generate the domestic production of between 1 and 2 million more barrels of oil a day. "Any time you try to amend the Clean Air Act, you're going to get push-back."

Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said the administration supports the changes to air pollution law, "especially in the context of improvements that would increase domestic refinery capacity, a pressing matter."

But Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), Barton's Democratic counterpart on Energy and Commerce, said the bill "is not responding to an emergency. . . . Republicans are using Katrina and Rita, and three- and four-dollar gas, to move legislation that, in truth, is not going to solve the problem."