August 8, 2003
Senate Politics Trump Energy
by Donald G. Mashburn

If you don’t like the recent hikes in gasoline prices, you’ll find little to cheer in the energy bill approved in the U.S. Senate on July 31. For the truth is, the bill and subsequent rhetoric before the television cameras show the Senate was more concerned with politics than energy.

In fact, the hot air produced in the U.S. Senate probably will provide more new energy than the bill the senators passed 84-14. If political posturing and maneuvering were combustible, the oil companies would be in deep trouble.

The bill does virtually nothing to create new energy supplies. It has a few potentially good things in it, but too many bad things.

Since the Democrats wrote the bill, the provision to develop the coastal slope near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was stripped out, and huge subsidies for ethanol were included.

The resulting bill meets the usual Democratic requirements: more government spending, and no development of new energy sources.

Senate Republicans, after months of futile offense, went into punt formation and pooch-punted to the Democrats. Faced with getting no bill at all or letting the Democrats write the bill, the GOP figured they were better off getting a bill they could take into a conference meeting with the House.

Democrats, of course, were publicly smiling. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said, “We’d much rather go into conference with a Democratic vehicle than what was going to pass ... as the Republican bill.”

Speaking for the GOP, Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M) said, “The reason I’m happy is ... I’ll be rewriting the bill. We’ll write a substantially different bill.” Well, let us hope so. The Senate version is a mess of political pottage that can be traded for very little in the way of usable energy in our lifetime.

The bill includes tax incentives for battery electric vehicles, fuel cell electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles. It also authorizes $260 million in grants to schools for the purchase of buses that use alternative fuels or ultra-low sulfur diesel.

The bill is larded with “Democrat-type” spending so popular with the grant miners at large universities. One of the richer potential lodes is the more than $2.5 billion for research and development to “enhance use” of some forms of renewable energy, including those that are hydrogen based.

The bill is long on promoting alternative fuels – can you say “ethanol?” Senators from “grain” states are pleased that both the House and Senate versions require gasoline marketers to sell five billion gallons of ethanol, blended with gasoline, by 2012.

That’s a lot of corn. But it won’t be enough, because once the government-propped ethanol price becomes an important source of income for big corporate farmers, their lobbyists will come back to Congress with hands out.

The most feasible source of new energy supplies are the untapped oil reserves believed to be under the coastal plain near the ANWR, on Alaska’s North Slope. Alaskans, and objective energy experts, strongly favor development. But congressional Democrats and environmental activists are opposed.

So ANWR may not be in the final bill. A strong push for ANWR will come from the House, whose Republican members have stiffer spines than their Senate counterparts. Still, some worry that certain GOP senators, who have a habit of caving on important principles, could side with their Democratic buddies.

The good news is that the House bill is much more oriented toward meeting the energy needs of the country, and it will form the skeleton of the final bill that gets fleshed out in conference. If the Senate could put the country’s energy needs above politics, the nation could have a sensible energy policy during this Bush administration.

But unless some senators hear clear, strong voices from home, it looks as if too many of them put a higher premium on increased government spending programs and in-house politics than on the nation’s energy supply.