President George W. Bush on August 8 signed a comprehensive energy bill that received strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. The legislation ended four years of Congressional wrangling over how best to respond to Bush’s 2001 call for comprehensive energy legislation.
The final legislation was approved by the House by a vote of 275-156. The Senate approved it 74-26.
“I’m confident that one day Americans will look back on this bill as a vital step toward a more secure and more prosperous nation that is less dependent on foreign sources of energy,” Bush said at the August 8 bill-signing ceremony.
A House-Senate conference committee resolved several contentious differences between their two competing bills before sending the final legislation to Bush.
MTBE Protection Removed
One such issue was a House provision granting liability protection to producers of the clean-air gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). The Senate version of the energy bill had no liability protection. MTBE liability protection was stripped from the final bill.
MTBE is an oxygenate Congress essentially required to be added to gasoline as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
“As chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources when the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments were put in place,” observed former Senator J. Bennett Johnston in a July 26 letter to the Wall Street Journal, “I can assure you Congress and the EPA went into the MTBE process with eyes open. We recognized that, among the fuel additives the government was mandating for use in cleaning smog-prone city air, MTBE was the only commercially viable alternative at the time.”
Few Water Systems Affected
Although MTBE produced cleaner air, as expected, environmental problems arose when faulty pipelines and storage tanks allowed MTBE to seep into groundwater.
“MTBE’s water solubility risks and ability to clean the air were trade-offs we faced,” Johnston noted in his Wall Street Journal letter. “Ironically, now Congress and the media cast the debate as letting energy producers off the hook, when in fact they were operating under a federal mandate to use MTBE.”
It is foolish, added a July 26 Wall Street Journal house editorial, “to punish law-abiding companies that had the bad judgment to follow Congressional orders.”
Renewable Mandates Rejected
Another contentious issue was a Senate proposal to mandate that 10 percent of the nation’s power be generated from “renewable” sources by the year 2020.
The proposal mandating more expensive sources of energy in the name of a cleaner environment was rejected by the conference committee because of its high costs to consumers and the insistence of many Congressmen that clean energy sources, such as hydropower, clean coal, and nuclear power, be recognized as part of the portfolio.
“It guts the renewable portfolio standard and what the Senate has been trying to achieve,” complained Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) of the proposed additional sources, as reported in the July 26 Greenwire. “We’re better off doing nothing.”
“The Senate’s renewable portfolio standard was one of the worst special-interest payoffs in the proposed energy bill,” said Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“Thankful consumers will be spared the higher electricity costs that would have resulted,” said Ebell.
Bill Gets Mixed Reaction
Reaction to the final legislation was mixed, but mostly positive.
“This energy bill has been a long time coming,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) in a July 29 statement. The bill “will maintain environmental safeguards and create incentives for the development of new, clean technologies,” he said.
“For American businesses, workers, and consumers, our nation’s limited capacity to meet increasing energy demand has been ignored for too long,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. “This measure begins to get our country back on track.”
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
For more information …
Essays by former Senator J. Bennett Johnston are available online at http://heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17664, “How Energy Bill Sets Stage for a Lawyers’ Bonanza,” and http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17163, “MTBE: A Regulatory Pitfall or Cause for Legal Action?”