President George W. Bush’s national energy policy cleared its first major hurdle August 2 when the U.S. House of Representatives gave its stamp of approval to the measure. The House made some adjustments to the President’s proposal, but the end product was largely similar to what Bush had outlined in May.
The two most contentious issues were Bush’s plan to open up a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for natural resource recovery and a Democratic attempt to add significantly tougher light-truck fuel efficiency requirements to the Bush proposal. On both issues, the President prevailed in keeping the House bill substantially similar to the plan he had earlier submitted.
Limited drilling allowed in ANWR
Key to the Bush proposal is oil recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Despite broad speculation that the proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, the President parlayed strong support from the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO into a surprise victory. In a 223 to 206 vote, the House voted to allow recovery on a 2,000-acre plot of land, down from the 1.5 million acres requested in the President’s initial proposal.
“It’s an irony that on [this] victory, it is labor that put him over the top in the House,” stated Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts).
“We support it because it puts our members to work,” answered Jerry Hood, special assistant on energy to Teamsters President James Hoffa.
Under strong pressure from organized labor, 36 Democrats voted to join ranks with the Republicans in supporting ANWR drilling. The Teamsters argued that by opening just a small portion of the refuge to oil recovery, the bill would create 700,000 new jobs. Importantly, most of these jobs are reserved for organized labor.
Also key to the President’s ANWR victory was the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. James Harris, an aide to Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-New York), told reporters the congressman was persuaded by Teamster arguments that Arctic resource recovery would create jobs “for the native community in Alaska.”
Tougher CAFE requirements rejected
Organized labor was also key to the defeat of a Democratic amendment that would have required tough new fuel efficiency requirements for light trucks. The fuel-efficiency amendment proposed increasing the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards on light trucks (including SUVs, minivans, and similar vehicles) from 20.7 miles per gallon to 27.5 miles per gallon. Organized labor argued the proposed new standards would cost 100,000 American jobs and force numerous plant closings. The amendment failed by a vote of 269 to 160.
By rejecting the Democratic amendment, the House left in place a compromise bill calling for light trucks to save five billion gallons of gasoline between 2004 and 2010. While the pending measure does not specify the exact average mileage light trucks will soon have to meet, experts expect the new standard will require an increase in three to four miles per gallon.
“We had to fight the White House, the Republican leadership, the Teamsters union and, it turns out, the Democratic leadership” said Dan Becker, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “It’s surprising we did as well as we did.”
House adds subsidies
The most significant discrepancy between the House bill and the President’s proposal was the House’s addition of substantial subsidies to a variety of supply- and conservation-side interests. The final package includes more than $30 billion in tax breaks and other incentives, including direct subsidies of various fuels from clean coal to wind and solar power. Other incentives include payments to manufacturers who meet fuel efficiency goals on new appliances.
ANWR stirs contentious debate
By far the most contentious debate involved resource recovery in the Arctic.
“This is no ordinary land,” stated Rep. David Bonior (D-Michigan). “It’s a cathedral of nature, an American heritage.”
Oil recovery “would cause irreversible damage to one of God’s most awesome creations,” weighed in Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut).
An August 4 Washington Times house editorial countered that ANWR is “a mosquito-infested swamp that is shrouded in frozen darkness for nearly half the year.”
Jonah Goldberg, a columnist with the Tribune Media Services, was equally direct. Writing about a recent trip she made to ANWR, “I was a little surprised to discover that if you wanted a picture to go with the word “Godforsaken” in the dictionary, ANWR would do nicely.”
“The pretty mountains and lakes you see on the evening news are safe from oil exploration by law and by the fact that there’s no oil there. The oil is on the coastal plain at the very top of ANWR on the coast of the Arctic Ocean,” added Goldberg. “Winter on the coastal plain lasts for nine months. Total darkness reigns for 58 straight days. The temperatures drop to 70 degrees below zero. This is the time of year when the oil companies would do almost all of their work; when nary a caribou nor any other creature would be dumb enough to venture out onto the frozen tundra for long.”
“If you don’t want to drill for oil in ANWR that’s fine. But don’t slander God by saying this giant mosquito pool is among his finest works,” concluded Goldberg.
Subjective debate over ANWR’s asserted beauty aside, it was ultimately the oil recovery industry’s environmental safety record and the limited scale of proposed drilling that proved persuasive in the House vote.
“In Oklahoma, which has been a top-five oil producing state for more than 80 years, most people are puzzled by these apocalyptic predictions, as they live in harmony with more than 100,000 oil and gas wells,” observed Republican Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. “We love our land, and our cathedrals remain remarkably undevastated.”
Keating pointed out that Alaska Governor Tony Knowles, a Democrat, is a native Oklahoman who supports ANWR drilling. “Oklahomans know that drilling for oil is not hard on the environment,” Keating said.
“In fact, drilling for oil and gas is remarkably safe and clean, something senators from some non-oil states refuse to comprehend,” added Keating.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham added, “Too many in our country believe that somehow a false choice exists, that the choice is more drilling and pipelines . . . versus lower prices and conservation . . . It’s a myth.”
Added Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “The coastal plain is not wilderness. Eskimos live there. There are villages there. There are military installations there. There’s a lot of human activity on the coastal plains, so this is not the pristine part. The wilderness part of ANWR has already been protected by Congress.”
The August 4 Washington Times editorial pointed out that only 1/10,000 of ANWR would be opened to resource recovery under the House bill.
Senate likely to address energy bill this fall
The ultimate fate of limited ANWR drilling and the rest of the energy bill will be decided after the U.S. Senate addresses the issue later this year. Predictions vary on whether ANWR, the compromise CAFE standards, and other Bush-friendly provisions will survive the Senate.
“I can’t imagine that at the end of the day, that the votes are there,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota).
“I don’t think it’d dead on arrival in the Senate,” countered Teamster official Jerry Hood. “I don’t even think it’s on life support.”
“We are very close to having a majority in the Senate,” added William Kovacs, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Passage of the House bill was necessary, continued Kovacs, because “national energy policy is so vital to the country that we had to be reasonable, we had to be bipartisan, and we had to stay the course.”
“For six years the House has driven issues the Senate didn’t want, and this is one of them,” noted Republican House Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.