House Approves Energy Bill Compromise

The House votes to accept compromise language on an energy bill worked out by House and Senate negotiators. Supporters say the bill will help stabilize gasoline and fuel oil prices. But opponents call it a boon for energy companies and special interests.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It runs more than 1,700 pages, its price tag is more than $11 billion, and today the energy bill is one step closer to law. The House of Representatives has passed the measure.

NORRIS: There's still debate over what the energy bill actually does. Supporters say it will help stabilize gasoline and fuel oil prices in the long run. Opponents call it a tax boondoggle for energy companies.

SIEGEL: And tucked inside, there's also a provision that has gotten some Democrats up in arms. It would spend about a half billion dollars on drilling research that may go to an energy group based in Sugarland, Texas, home of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

While supporters and opponents of the energy bill disagree over whether the measure will have an impact on energy consumption or whether it sets new direction for energy policy, this much is certain: The measure is a major fount of money. Some of it will go to renewable sources of energy like wind. Some will go to buyers of hybrid cars and homeowners who make energy-efficient improvements. But about $3 billion will go to tax breaks aimed squarely at big oil and gas companies, and that riles opponents of the legislation like Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): It is politically and morally wrong for the United States Congress to come to this floor to pass legislation which will take money from the American taxpayers to hand over to the corporations who are now charging 2.30, 2.40, 2.50, 2.60 at the pump to American consumers and reporting the largest profits in history.

NAYLOR: One provision in particular has raised eyebrows in Washington. Tucked away in the 1,725 pages of the bill, it will provide $50 million a year over 10 years to research ultra-deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Anna Aurilio is legislative counsel for US-PIRG.

Ms. ANNA AURILIO (Legislative Counsel, US-PIRG): Basically what it does is it sets up a spending account for the oil industry to do ultra-deep-water drilling. They're already interested in doing ultra-deep-water drilling. With oil prices at $60 a barrel, there's no reason why companies like ExxonMobil, which are reporting record profits, can't spend their own money in doing ultra-deep-water drilling.

NAYLOR: The money would be available for anyone to apply for, but a consortium including Halliburton and located in Tom DeLay's district is considered the leading contender. Some opponents say the provision was snuck into the legislation early Tuesday morning after negotiators had reached final agreement on the bill. But Joe Barton, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee--also a Texas Republican--says it was all done fair and square.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): People may disagree whether the provision nee--is needed or not, but there should be no disagreement that it was put into the bill in an open and fair process with everybody having an opportunity to debate it, amend it or delete it.

NAYLOR: Barton, a former petroleum engineer, defends the $11 1/2 billion net cost of the bill, though even the Bush administration has questioned whether oil companies really need tax breaks to encourage production at a time of record high prices. Barton says taxpayers will see benefits from the legislation.

Rep. BARTON: The direct spending in the bill scores at about a billion dollars a year over 10 years. We spend more than that a day for imported oil, just to put that in context. We spend about $2 1/2 trillion every year for energy in this country. So for $2,500 billion we're going to cost the government about a billion. The return on investment is phenomenal. So I've got no problem defending the cost of the bill generically.

NAYLOR: The Senate is likely to approve the bill tomorrow and send it on to the president, who has made an energy bill one of his top priorities. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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