Congress pledges to move swiftly on White House energy plan

May 17, 2001
The US Congress Thursday responded swiftly to President Bush's energy task force plan, pledging to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year. But Democrats critical of the report say they will not vote for a bill that overemphasizes supply over conservation.

WASHINGTON, DC, May 17 -- With higher energy costs continuing to dominate the White House's domestic agenda, Congress Thursday responded swiftly to President Bush's energy task force plan, pledging to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year.

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate said they would craft energy legislation before the Labor Day holiday in early September that will encourage domestic supply and reduce demand. But Bush administration officials concede that getting a closely divided Capitol Hill to agree on specific details will be a tough, although certainly not insurmountable, feat.

Hard political realities may also help soften the partisan rhetoric that has so far thwarted cooperation between the two parties. Congress must move quickly, according to most political analysts, since skyrocketing energy costs are a big concern to the general public and those worries could affect congressional elections next year.

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.) said Thursday a cabinet member would testify on the president's energy plan at a May 22 hearing. Murkowski also plans to merge the White House recommendations with his own bill during a markup in mid-June.

"Today this nation has an energy policy," Murkowski said. "Yesterday we didn't have one but now we do," he said, referring to the White House plan. "We will do everything possible to move this."

A key item the Murkowski plan has that is missing from the White House proposal is a tax cut for marginal wells. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.) said the administration has indicated it will endorse a tax relief package. She will offer legislation that creates tax credits for marginal wells and for individuals who cut their personal energy consumption.

"It's a carrot, not a stick, approach to energy supply," she said.

The Murkowski bill, S. 389, would expand tax credits to encourage oil production and streamline existing regulations on federal land leasing. It would allow industry to pay royalties with actual production instead of cash and allow lessees to forgo royalties when prices are low (OGJ Online, Feb. 23, 2001). Other measures seek to encourage pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure and create a healthy investment climate for nuclear energy.

Legislation by his Democratic counterpart, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), would also retool energy policy by expanding tax incentives for independent producers. It would also extend tax credits for conservation and energy efficiency, as does the Murkowski plan.

One big sticking point is Murkowski's desire to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

That's a political hot potato that even the White House admits will likely not fly.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they want to work on a bipartisan bill but Democrats say they will not accept a bill that includes an ANWR drilling provision.

Senate Democrats also complain that Republican proposals have been "developed in secret" with no emphasis on short-term relief from high fuel prices.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said his party stands ready to reshape energy policy, but so far Republicans have "just taken a page from the past."

Another Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, said the GOP proposal is just an industry mouthpiece, noting that GOP should stand for "Gas, Oil, and Plutonium."

A separate group of senators, representing a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the energy-dependent Northeast, offered a more optimistic view.

"We need compromise and a lot of it," said Susan Collins (R-Me.). Collins and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York say one example would be to support more drilling in the Rocky Mountain region, provided that Republicans consider tougher fuel-efficiency standards for sport utility vehicles (OGJ Online, Apr. 26, 2001).

In the House, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said, "We have a big plate ahead of us." Tauzin envisioned his committee passing portions of the White House's conservation proposals initially, then supply-side measures. Also before the committee this summer will be electricity restructuring legislation, pipeline safety, and nuclear waste. House leaders may opt to package different bills together over the summer, Tauzin said, although it is too soon to tell what legislation may win approval first.

House Democrats could be a formidable obstacle if Republicans seek to adapt the White House plan verbatim.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Thursday the president's plan "makes the wrong choices for the American people." According to Gephardt, the proposal "looks like an ExxonMobil annual report, and maybe that's what it is."