House, Senate Negotiators Near Deal on Energy Bill

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House and Senate negotiators worked past midnight to complete the non-tax part of a sweeping energy bill. The legislation calls for subsidies for clean energy technology. But the House rejected a Senate-backed plan that would have required 10 percent of electricity be generated by renewable sources.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's taken years to get this far, but negotiators in Congress are close to passing an energy bill. The overall goal is to cut reliance on foreign oil and promote conservation. House and Senate negotiators agreed early this morning on some key provisions, though they are still debating tax breaks for energy companies. NPR's Brian Naylor reports this morning on what's in the plan and, just as important, what's left out.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

President Bush has pushed Congress to adopt a nationwide energy policy since he first came to office, and now appears on the verge of reaching his long-sought goal, largely because lawmakers have avoided some of the pitfalls of the past. The biggest fell out of the bill over the weekend when House negotiators conceded defeat over a controversial proposal to give producers of the gasoline additive MTBE immunity from legal liability. The additive has polluted groundwater supplies in several states, and a similar liability clause torpedoed energy legislation in the last Congress.

But while the House negotiators conceded the MTBE provision, they gave no ground on some modest conservation provisions favored by the Senate. Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, of North Dakota, argued for a provision calling for cutting energy consumption by a million barrels of oil a day.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): We need oil. I understand that. But we are increasingly addicted to oil that comes from off of our shores. It's now 60 percent. The expectation is that will grow to 69 percent. We need to address it. This is addressing it in the most minimal way, but, nonetheless, is a step in the right direction.

NAYLOR: But House negotiators, led by conference chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, were dismissive of the proposal.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas; Conference Chairman): Just telling the president to wave a magic wand, and tell each and every one of us that we need to conserve may sound good, and, obviously, our friends in the Senate think it's good policy, but those of us who are elected directly by the people every two years have a little bit different view of that.

NAYLOR: The House also rejected a Senate-backed plan that would have required 10 percent of electricity be generated by renewable sources. But renewables weren't left out of the bill entirely. The measure contains billions of dollars in loan guarantees offered for everything from wind generation to coal gasification to nuclear power plants. Massachusetts Democrat, Ed Markey, said the guarantees were unnecessary subsidies at a time when energy prices are at record highs.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): It's bad enough that we are allowing the oil companies, the coal, the gas, the nuclear to tip consumers upside down and shake money out of their pockets, and we're not going to do anything about it in this bill, but to then shake money out of them as taxpayers, as well, to subsidize the very same companies, is absolutely fiscally irresponsible.

NAYLOR: Opponents of an inventory of offshore oil sites also used fiscal arguments to press their case. They say the inventory could be the first step toward drilling on the outer continental shelf, the OCS, something Florida lawmakers, such as Republican Michael Bilirakis, opposed.

Representative MICHAEL BILIRAKIS (Republican, Florida): We have to ask ourselves: Why do we want to spend billions of dollars to take an inventory of all of this OCS area--is under a moratorium, which it is--which cannot be drilled for oil and natural gas.

NAYLOR: But the effort to remove the provision from the bill failed. The energy bill's biggest impact may be on grain farmers. It would double production of ethanol to seven and a half billion gallons by 2012. The tax parts of the measure remain a work in progress, work that's being done behind closed doors. But lawmakers are likely to provide some $10 billion in tax breaks for energy companies, which the White House says are unnecessary, but which the president is not threatening to veto. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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