THE ENERGY BILL: The Environment’s Worst Nightmare
By Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network


Soon after Bush and Cheney took over the Whitehouse, they published an "Energy Plan" cooked up through secret meetings with companies like Enron, Exxon and Exelon (national leaders in gas and deregulation, oil and nuclear power, respectively). This plan was an ambitious wish-list of big energy industry fantasies. While the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge got the most attention due to mainstream environmental groups focusing narrowly on that topic, the plan has far worse things in store.

The bill is huge and far-reaching, but can largely be summed up as “more nukes, coal, oil, gas, hydro dams and incineration, more dirty transportation fuels, more Enrons, lower fuel efficiency for cars and trucks, more mining and drilling, more pipelines and power lines and lots of death and destruction.”

To implement the plan, legislation needed to be passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. In the 2001-2002 session of Congress, the House and Senate were controlled by different parties, with the Democrats having a narrow majority in the Senate. Both houses passed their own version of an energy bill. The Senate version (controlled by the Democrats) was far worse, particularly in the area of promoting nuclear power and Enron-style deregulation. Due to the excessive attention to Arctic drilling, the most significant good thing about the Senate bill is that it did NOT contain the Arctic drilling provision.

When there are differences in legislation passed by the House and Senate, they must go to a "conference committee" made up of some legislators from both houses of Congress so they can hammer out the differences and send back a compromise version that both houses re-vote on. Due to intense disagreement over Arctic drilling, electric utility deregulation, ethanol, global warming studies, price supports for Alaskan natural gas and a few other issues, the energy bill died at the end of 2002 while still in conference committee.

When Republicans won control of the Senate in 2003, the energy bill came back with a vengeance. Though hard to believe, the bill got even worse, with unprecedented massive tax-payer subsidies for building new nuclear reactors, plans for a new special nuclear reactor to produce hydrogen for fuel cells, renewable energy tax-credits for trash incineration and plenty of other horrid ideas.

In April 2003, the House passed the energy bill by a 247-175 vote with the support of most Republicans and many Democrats, after rejecting several proposed amendments by Democrats that would have made the bill somewhat less horrible. The energy bill faced more difficult times in the Senate and in late July 2003, Senators got so frustrated in arguing over amendments that they dropped the bill being considered and resorted to passing the same energy bill that they passed the previous year. The bill passed by a vote of 84-14, with the broad support of both major parties.

The Republican leadership blatantly admitted that they would completely rewrite the Senate's bill in conference committee. By mid-November, Republican Senators and House members had rewritten the bill themselves, having literally locked Democrats out of the final negotiations. Democratic members of the conference committee were given only 48 hours to review the 1000-page legislation before approving it. Republican conference committee members, with a slight majority, voted down every proposed amendment by Democrats.

The new bill was immediately approved by the House by a vote of 246-180, with the help of many Democrats (including the notable non-vote by Presidential candidate Dick Gephardt). All the remained was to have the bill approved in the Senate so it could go to Bush's eager hands to be signed into law.

In late November, the Senate tried to pass the bill, but Senator Schumer from New York State led a filibuster of the bill, preventing it from being voted on. A filibuster is a tactic in the U.S. Senate where a Senator can block a bill by talking forever until the bill is pulled from the agenda or until the bill's proponents can pull together 60 votes to invoke "cloture" -- cutting off the filibuster and allowing the bill to proceed.

Senate Democrats who voted to cut off the filibuster: Senate Republicans who supported the filibuster:
Lincoln (AR)
Pryor (AR)
Miller (GA)
Harkin (IA)
Breaux (LA)
Landrieu (LA)
Baucus (MT)
Dayton (MN)
Conrad (ND)
Dorgan (ND)
Nelson (NE)
Daschle (SD)
Johnson (SD)
McCain (AZ)
Collins (ME)
Snowe (ME)
Gregg (NH)
Sununu (NH)
Chafee (RI)

The Senate, led by Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, tried to cut off the filibuster on November 21st, but fell 2 votes short of the 60 votes they needed. Hoping to try again in a few days, Frist procedurally changed his vote last minute, so the vote turned out to be 57 to 40, with 3 Democrats not bothering to vote (including presidential candidates Kerry and Edwards).

The filibuster is the only thing preventing the bill from becoming law at this point and the Senate has all of 2004 to try again. The victory in November was a narrow one and it’s important to understand the dynamics of the filibuster vote so that we can keep up the pressure in 2004 and prevent bill proponents from getting the 2 extra votes they need.

Thirteen Democrats switched sides and supported the Republican majority in seeking to cut off the filibuster. Most of these were from mid-western farm states, where the ethanol lobby has pushed hard and has even won the support of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Both Senators from Louisiana (both Democrats) also supported the bill, most likely due to their long-standing support of their state’s oil and gas industries.

Six bold Republicans crossed party lines to support the filibuster, providing the crucial margin that stopped the bill so far. Senator McCain from Arizona was joined by all five Republican Senators from New England. They responded to the Democrats’ main rallying cry against the bill, which was focused on the retroactive product liability waiver for the gas additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE has leaked from underground storage tanks at gas stations around the nation and has contaminated groundwater in many communities. The two Republican Senators from Texas have strongly supported this legal protection for their friends in the oil industry, who make MTBE in their state.

Senate Majority Leader Frist has promised that passing the energy bill is at the top of his agenda. In November, he vowed to bring the bill up as soon as the Senate reconvenes in late January, but it’s likely that it won’t come back until March. If environmentalists are active enough to prevent two more Senators from supporting the bill, we could stall it until it dies at the end of the year.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who sold out to the ethanol lobby and now supports the bill, said Republicans could pick up six more votes if they dropped controversial measures to protect oil companies from lawsuits. "I believe that I can produce four, five, maybe even six votes for the energy bill if the MTBE legislation is taken out," Daschle told reporters in early January.

However, in late November, Senate aides and lobbyists on both sides of the issue said the New Hampshire Republican Senators managed to secure private commitments to vote against the final bill from at least three other Republicans and four Democrats who opposed the filibuster. This sign of hope may prove true as the election season moves on. In a recent article about Nevada’s Republican Senator John Ensign, it states that he “opposes the energy bill before the Senate because it is ‘laden with special interests.’”

Some sources have indicated that the ethanol section of the energy bill might be split off into a separate bill. As wasteful and polluting as ethanol is (plans even include “trash-to-ethanol” projects!), passage of an “ethanol-only” type of bill could cause the many Midwestern Senate Democrats to drop their support for the rest of the energy bill, saving us from the remainder of its horrors.

Last modified: 21 January 2004

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