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Senators see corporate favors in contentious energy bill

WASHINGTON -- A sweeping measure laying out the nation's first energy policy in a decade -- hammered together during two years of backroom negotiating, then hailed as a way to prevent a repeat of August's embarrassing blackout -- has hit bipartisan opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers are denouncing the package as a corporate giveaway that will not reduce US reliance on foreign oil.

The Senate is expected to vote today on whether to end debate on the contentious bill or kill it for the foreseeable future. The Bush administration and Republican leaders have been lobbying frenetically to approve the bill, a priority of both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose task force began developing a new energy policy in closed-door meetings nearly three years ago.

Many Democrats and some Republicans are balking at the 1,100-page bill, calling it a hodgepodge of regional pork projects and industry giveaways, including some $23 billion in incentives for energy companies and cash for projects such as ethanol production and an environmentally-friendly Hooters restaurant in Louisiana, the home state of Republican Representative Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"The energy bill is the worst case of pork-barreling and vote-buying I've seen," said Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona, who has pledged to back a threatened filibuster of the bill. New England senators also oppose the bill, which Senator John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said would "transfer wealth and tax revenues from the Northeast to agribusiness in the Midwest."

Supporters argue that the legislation will help meet the nation's escalating energy needs, sparing Americans from the threat of blackouts or high gasoline prices by encouraging production of oil, gas, nuclear energy, and alternative fuels, such as wind power. The country is relying increasingly on natural gas for electricity, and the bill's supporters want to develop a greater and more diverse supply of energy.

"The United States lives, eats, and drinks, and in a nutshell, survives on energy. It is very risky when you are running on one source of energy when you have many others available," said Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico. Domenici is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and a chief architect of the bill.

A Globe survey of energy specialists revealed a widespread belief that the bill will do little to diminish the nation's reliance on foreign oil or to prevent blackouts.

"There are a lot of subsidies and a lot of corporate welfare in this bill, and a lot of people are going to be very happy. But I don't see how it will end our energy problem," said Charlie Coon, an energy specialist with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Democrats estimate the total cost of the bill, including subsidies, loan guarantees, and demonstration projects, at $115 billion. Taxpayers for American Sense, a consumer group, put the price tag at a minimum $95 billion.

And nowhere in the bill are Americans asked to change their lifestyles to save energy. More than two decades after President Carter donned a cardigan sweater and urged citizens to turn down their thermostats and carpool, Americans are unwilling to give up sport utility vehicles and electronic gadgets, and even environmentalists have given up asking them to try.

"President Carter's decision to say energy efficiency was about turning the thermostat down to 68 degrees was probably the biggest political mistake in energy policy in the history of the country," said Philip Clapp, president of the liberal National Environmental Trust. "The issue is and even was then about technology, and building energy efficiency into the economy overall in ways that produce the same lifestyle." But "we haven't really begun to start that policy" with the energy legislation, Clapp said.

Clapp and other environmentalists sought to include rules that would have increased funding for renewable fuels, required better energy efficiency for appliances, and demanded higher standards for automobile emissions. They had only limited success, winning some backing for renewable energy sources.

"This is a production-oriented bill," said Kara Saul Rinaldo, policy director for the Alliance to Save Energy, referring to the more than $23 billion the measure provides in tax breaks and direct subsidies to industry. "We're not going to be able to dig or drill our way to energy independence."

The nation is not currently in an energy crisis, industry and environmental groups agree. More than two years after Cheney convened secret meetings to develop an energy policy -- invoking the power problems in California -- there is actually a glut of energy in the country, said Jerry Taylor, an energy specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute. Gasoline prices are dramatically lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they were in 1980. Cars with improved mileage and other technologies have helped conserve energy usage even as the economy and population have grown.

Both sides, however, see a looming problem, especially as international events -- such as the war in Iraq and a strike in oil-rich Venezuela -- have shaken the volatile global oil market. Conservationists are pushing for funding for energy-saving technology.

Others argue that the United States needs to step up what they call lagging domestic production of energy. No new refineries have been built in the country in 27 years, said Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. No new nuclear power plants have been ordered since the 1970s. And coastal drilling for oil and gas -- along with drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge -- has not been permitted.

The bill also contains local or regional projects, including a provision popular with farmers to double the use of ethanol, a gasoline additive made from corn, and loan guarantees to build a new coal plant in Minnesota, which opposing senators estimated would cost $2 billion to $3 billion. Other projects include a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Midwest and a subsidy for an artificial rain forest in Iowa.

While conservationists decry the focus on production, others say the bill does not go far enough to increase the nation's energy supply. Drilling in the Alaskan reserve was left out of the bill in recognition that the measure would otherwise never pass the Senate, as was a controversial proposal to require the government to conduct a survey of oil and gas reserves in coastal areas, including Georges Bank off Cape Cod.

While the United States was once a dominant producer of the world's oil in the last century, it now derives more than half its oil from foreign sources. The country owns 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, and they are far more expensive to extract than oil in the Middle East, Taylor said.

The economic disparity is one reason the oil industry needs incentives to drill domestically, said Edward Murphy, an official at the American Petroleum Institute.

"It's a risky business, looking for oil," said Frank Maisano of the law firm Brace and Paterson, which represents industry groups. The bill "is somewhat geared toward oil and gas, but that's because that's where most of our energy comes from."

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