Energy Bill and Weaning U.S. from Foreign Oil

Negotiators in Congress are finalizing work on a national energy bill, which they hope to send to the White House this week. Madeleine Brand talks with Brian Naylor about the bill that some critics say does little to make the United States more independent of foreign oil.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Here in the United States, Congress is on the verge of passing an energy bill after years of trying and failing. The bill has been a major priority for President Bush since his election in 2000. The bill is best defined not only by what's in it but what isn't. With us from Capitol Hill to discuss the details is NPR's congressional correspondent, Brian Naylor.

And, Brian, tell us, first of all, why this bill has been held up for so long.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The biggest thing, Madeleine, was a provision in the bill last year that would have given the makers of a gasoline additive, MTBE, immunity from lawsuits from individuals and communities. The additive is believed to be a carcinogen. Several states have found groundwater contaminated from leaks. And the House, led by Texas Republican Tom DeLay, wanted to shield the refiners from having to pay those clean-up costs, but the Senate blocked it and killed the energy bill last year. And so this year the House tried to get a somewhat modified immunity provision in the bill, but the Senate continued to resist, and so the House conceded defeat. And so now we have an energy bill that both the House and Senate can live with.

BRAND: And what else is in this bill?

NAYLOR: Well, there is just lots and lots of stuff in this bill. Its authors say it's the first step toward increasing domestic energy production and encouraging renewable energy. But having said that, most of the bill is devoted to the old energy standbys. There are provisions to facilitate the construction of new nuclear power plants, provisions to encourage deepwater oil drilling, provisions to double the amount of ethanol produced and encourage so-called clean-coal technologies. And a big part of the bill are the tax breaks. Some do encourage wind-generated and solar power, but most of the tax breaks go to the old-line oil and gas industries, which critics say hardly need tax breaks at a time when there are record high gas prices. The thing in this bill, Madeleine, I think most people will notice most of all is a provision that will extend daylight-savings time by a month. That starts in 2007.

BRAND: And what about that controversial plan to drill for oil in Alaska?

NAYLOR: Well, it's not in this bill because it probably would've caused a filibuster in the Senate. But there is a provision allowing for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, coming up in something called the budget reconciliation bill, which will come up in the fall. That bill isn't subject to a filibuster, so there is a good chance ANWR will be open to oil drilling, but not because of this energy bill.

BRAND: And the question on everyone's minds: Will this affect gasoline prices?

NAYLOR: Not at all. Consumers are not likely to notice any difference at the pumps. And environmental groups are disappointed because this bill doesn't do anything to curb energy demand, really. In fact, Republicans blocked efforts by Democrats to call on the president to recommend ways to cut oil imports by a million barrels a day. There's nothing in the bill that requires cars to get better gas mileage, although there is a tax credit for buying a hybrid car. And Democrats also tried to get more tax incentives for encouraging even more wind and renewable energy sources, but those efforts were also blocked.

BRAND: And so this is expected to pass easily soon?

NAYLOR: Yeah, it's probably going to come up in the house tomorrow and Friday in the Senate. This is on the fast track. Congress wants to leave town for its August recess, and this is one of the things they have promised to finish up before they go. This is something they all want to go home and claim credit for doing something about the energy crisis, although, as I say, I don't think most consumers are going to notice many real differences.

BRAND: And President Bush will sign it?

NAYLOR: Absolutely. This is one of his top priorities.

BRAND: NPR's Brian Naylor on Capitol Hill.

Thanks a lot, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Madeleine.

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