Time for another energy bill

November 1, 2005 By    

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, seems agreeable to it.

Lisa Bontempo
Lisa Bontempo

Saying it’s time for energy leaders “to muster political will” from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and “take the tough steps after the storms that couldn’t be taken before,” he has supported the president’s call for energy conservation measures. His committee has already held hearings on global oil demand, gasoline pricing, and the outlook for winter fuels.

Even more convinced is Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who helped pass his committee’s bill, the Gasoline for America’s Security Act through the House of Representatives.

Just months after the president signed the hard-fought “comprehensive” energy bill into law, Barton began pushing measures excluded in that new energy law. For years he has reminded anyone that will listen that the last U.S. refinery was built in 1976. There are just 148 refineries operating nationwide, compared to 324 in 1981.

“We use 21 million barrels of oil a day and only have the refinery capacity for 16 million on a good day. And after Katrina and Rita, we haven’t had many good days,” he says.

In the hopes of increasing domestic energy production, the House-passed GAS Act streamlines the siting process for U.S. refineries. It encourages new pipelines through siting and construction requirement reforms for pipelines and pipeline extensions. Critics claim the bill will weaken federal price gouging penalties, gut pollution emission standards, inappropriately allow the president to designate federal lands to site refineries, and force taxpayers to pick up the tab for refineries that face initial operation delays.

Environmentalists and the Democratic Party are promoting demand-side solutions to high energy prices and supply disruptions. Their solutions focus on corporate average fuel economy for vehicles and increasing efficiency standards for home builders and appliance manufacturers.

Should we expect to see a measure like the GAS Act pass the Congress this year?

If the recent House vote is any indication, the outlook is far from certain in the Senate. On the night of the vote, Republican leaders did not have enough votes to pass the measure. Amidst cries of foul play, Republicans held the vote open long enough to twist arms for a 212-210 vote win.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee began hearings on a refining bill called the Gas PRICE Act, introduced by Chairman Jim Imhofe (R-OK).

Other pieces of legislation are worth watching. Sen. Bingaman is a co-sponsor of an amendment to provide affordable, low-interest loans to small businesses hit hard by the record increases in home heating oil, natural gas, propane, gasoline and kerosene prices.

Dozens of governors also want an extra $1.3 billion in emergency energy assistance and to fully fund the Low Income Home Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Last year, Congress provided $2.2 billion for LIHEAP. The president wants to cut that despite predictions of higher winter home heating bills.

Since Katrina, Congress has passed $71 billion in emergency spending and tax cuts. The president has called for offsets through spending cuts to counter ballooning budget deficits. The Congressional Budget Committees are tasked with passing a budget that cuts some $35 billion in social and health care spending over the next five years, causing a rift between GOP fiscal conservatives who support spending cuts and moderates who want more anti-poverty spending.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H) is among those who support more home heating assistance and deep cuts elsewhere to offset hurricane spending.

“When oil is $65 a barrel, when natural gas prices are shooting up, there is a need for more assistance. What we don’t have is a need for $25 billion in highway earmarks and energy tax break to oil and gas companies when they are enjoying record profits. There are plenty of avenues to pursue fiscal restraint,” Sununu said.

Passage of major energy legislation is not impossible, but it is as politically challenging as ever. The more time that passes without progress, the more unlikely it becomes as bigger energy issues continue to polarize the politicians and political parties.

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