Energy Bill Dies in Senate

Published January 1, 2004

A $31 billion measure aimed at overhauling the nation’s energy strategy died in the Senate November 21, as proponents of the bill failed to gather enough votes to block a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) mustered a 57-40 majority for ending debate, falling two votes short. With the filibuster still intact, Congress adjourned for the holidays, and the long-term prospects for the energy bill were left in doubt.

Some elements of the bill–including electric reliability standards to prevent a recurrence of last summer’s East Coast power blackout and provisions to upgrade the nation’s aging energy infrastructure–received broad support. Support was mixed for a patchwork of provisions promising tax breaks, grants, and guaranteed loans for virtually all forms of energy production. While the provisions promised to facilitate energy production, anti-industry forces protested only “renewable” fuels such as solar and wind power should be eligible for financial support from the federal government, since renewables cannot compete with traditional energy sources without subsidy.

MTBE Complications

Complicating matters was the insistence by many House Republicans that the measure include a provision shielding producers of the fuel-additive MTBE from civil liability for harms the additive may have caused to the environment. MTBE, produced in response to the Clean Air Act’s reformulated gasoline (RFG) mandates, has been implicated in groundwater contamination in California, Michigan, and elsewhere.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) promised to deliver enough Democratic votes to end the filibuster if the energy bill’s proponents removed language shielding MTBE producers. Despite pressure from President George W. Bush and many Senate Republicans, House Republicans refused to remove the MTBE provision.

“They ignored my warnings,” said Daschle. “I urged them to take out the MTBE legislation, they chose not to do so. They’re paying the price. I’m not sure what else I’m able to do.”

Top Priority in 2004

Proponents of the bill refused to give up. Frist asserted that resuscitating the energy bill will be his first priority when Congress convenes after the first of the year. “We expect to come back to it immediately,” said Frist. “It is such an important bill, we are pretty confident that everyone will work together. The dynamics are there.”

“A lot of Democrats have provisions they want to see in the energy bill,” warned Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana). Such provisions include a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in portions of the Rocky Mountains, requiring a significant percentage of U.S. energy production to be generated by renewable sources, and mandatory energy conservation programs.

Senator John Breaux (D-Louisiana), who supports the bill, insisted it could be approved if more concessions were made to some of his Democratic colleagues. “It’s just a matter of tinkering with [the bill],” Breaux said.

“I’m not going to be a piecemeal patsy,” responded Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico).

Domenici warned that if energy bill proponents further acceded to “anti-energy” demands of bill opponents, such concessions would result in lost votes among current energy bill supporters. Several allies of Bush, who has made passage of the energy bill one of his highest priorities, question whether the bill is too expensive for the American taxpayer. Seven Senate Republicans voted to sustain the filibuster, providing the margin needed to kill the bill for the year.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].