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Posted on  

March 6, 2002

Senate begins battle over U.S. energy policy

By Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate began debating on Tuesday a broad energy bill that has pulled Democrat and Republican lawmakers far apart on the best way to boost domestic energy supplies and reduce oil imports, making the measure face a stiff uphill battle.

The bill, the first major attempt to overhaul U.S. energy policy since 1992, appears doomed from the start as lawmakers disagree over whether to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or require much better gasoline mileage from cars and trucks.

Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, urged lawmakers to pass a comprehensive bill because energy was central to U.S. economic prosperity and national security, especially in light of the Sept. 11 attacks.

``We can develop an energy policy that will lead to new economic prosperity for the country...but we will not get there simply by perpetuating the energy policy approaches of the past,'' Bingaman told his colleagues in a Senate floor speech.

Instead of depending more on traditional sources like oil, the Democratic energy bill would push renewable energy fuels and raise vehicle fuel economy standards to reduce oil demand.

Democrats want to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard from the current 25 miles per gallon (mpg) to 35 mpg by 2015, which they claim would save more oil than could ever be found in ANWR.

To ease the phase-in for automakers, Democrats modified their original proposal and delayed the higher fuel standard by two years.

Republicans say those are lofty goals, but not realistic as oil will remain a major U.S. energy source for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, they believe ANWR's potential 16 billion barrels of crude should be used to cut imports, which account for 60 percent of the petroleum consumed daily in the country.

``We need to have more exploration and drilling in our own country,'' said Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. ``We need to have an energy supply that we can provide at home.''

Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska said improved drilling technology would allow exploration of ANWR without harming the environment and make the U.S. less dependent on Iraq, which is America's sixth biggest oil supplier.

``It is better to have strong domestic energy policy that safeguards our environment and our national security than to rely on the likes of (Iraq's) Saddam Hussein to supply this energy,'' Murkowski said.

``Every barrel bought from a rogue nation could mean a bomb built to hurt this country. I think it's about time we turn off the spigot of terrorist oil,'' said Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, referring to oil shipments from Iraq.

Republicans are also against a huge boost in the CAFE standard because they are worried consumers will be stuck with vehicles that cost more and are less safe because they will be built from lighter materials.

Hutchison said the current bill is ``not a balanced approach'' because it does not do enough for energy production and focuses too much on conservation and renewable fuels.


The Bush administration said on Tuesday it had ``serious concerns'' with the Senate bill in its current form, and criticized the legislation for not allowing drilling in the Arctic refuge.

``ANWR is by far the largest untapped source of domestic petroleum potential and would equal nearly 40 years of imports from Iraq,'' the White House said in a statement on the bill.

``Increasing domestic petroleum supply, thereby reducing dependence on foreign sources of oil, is a vital component of our nation's energy security,'' the administration said.

The administration also said it ``strongly opposes'' the higher mileage requirements in the Senate bill, saying it fears the proposed CAFE standards would cost thousands of autoworker jobs and ``would contribute to many thousands of additional passenger fatalities and injuries.''

While ANWR drilling and CAFE standards are the most contentious issues in the bill, Democrats, Republicans and industry groups have apparently reached a deal on diversifying U.S. energy supplies by boosting the amount of renewable fuels, including ethanol and bio-diesel, blended into gasoline.

The amount used would rise from the current 1.5 billion gallons a year to 5 billion gallons annually by 2012.

A controversial fuel additive MTBE -- methyl tertiary butyl ether -- which boosts the oxygen in gasoline to make it burn cleaner but pollutes underground water supplies, would be phased out over four years under the bill.

The legislation would also end the federal requirement that gasoline contain 2 percent oxygen in order to burn cleanly.



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