Sunday, July 24, 2005

Senate Wins a Round in Energy Bill Conference

In an important victory for the Senate and good sense, the House-Senate conference committee on the energy bill (meeting in a rare Sunday session) rejected a proposal from House Energy Committee chairman Joe Barton (yes, that Barton) that would have exempted makers of the polluting gasoline additive MTBE from environmental lawsuits. The House version of the energy bill contains the liability protection; the Senate's does not - it was a dispute over this difference that doomed the last energy bill two years ago.

Barton, a longtime backer of the exemption, proposed a "compromise" Friday that would have coupled it with the creation of an $11.4 billion "cleanup fund" (only partially paid for by the oil industry). This option was refused by Senate negotiators, and while Barton said he will try to bring another proposal forward tomorrow at the final meeting of the conferees, his Senate counterpart, Pete Domenici, said of the cleanup fund and the liability exemption "Those are gone."

There is still reason to be concerned that the energy bill emerging from the conference will be chock full of handouts to the oil companies and heavy on tax breaks with too little emphasis on conservation and alternative energy sources. As the AP reports, "congressional tax writers sought a compromise on the energy bill's tax provisions. Those have been conducted behind closed doors in separate negotiations with little information surfacing. The Senate approved a $14 billion tax package, focused heavily on subsidizing renewable energy sources and conservation, while a smaller House-passed $8 billion package leaned more toward supporting oil, gas and nuclear industries."

When Barton was asked on Sunday by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts when the tax portion of the bill would be available to view, he was told probably not until the final version of the bill is filed, immediately prior to consideration on the floor. As Markey pointed out, that's hardly a healthy way for a legislative process to function; but Barton not surprisingly shrugged off his concerns and gaveled the meeting to a close. So I remain somewhat concerned as to what the final bill will look like.

Importantly, however, common sense won a round today, with the rejection of Barton's pernicious-polluter-protection-proposal. Who knows, maybe we won't get an unacceptably awful bill out of this whole thing after all.

[Update: Lest we allow our spirits to be heightened by the above good news, the Times will report on Monday that the victory on MTBE seems to be of the "one step forward, three steps back" variety: "Provisions in the energy legislation sought by environmental advocates appeared to be in danger. A Senate-passed plan to require utilities to generate at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind by 2020 was faltering, and a Senate call for the president to find a way to cut oil consumption by one million barrels a day appeared dead." I hope that senators will insist on these measures, either in conference or when the bill comes to final passasge. What, I ask, is wrong with them? -- 10:44 p.m.]


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