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U.S. Congress Debates Energy Policy This Week


Following a short recess after the Independence Day Holiday, the U.S. Congress comes together this week to debate a wide-ranging energy bill. The House and Senate have already approved separate versions of the legislation. The Congress now must hammer out a compromise before the bill can become law.

The 2 bills present programs to help shape the nation's energy future. Navin Nayak with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group -- a non-partisan advocacy group on environmental and consumer issues -- is not happy with either the House or Senate bill. "I think that the best way to qualify the 2 energy bills that have passed is to call the House (of Representatives) bill a disaster," he says. "Not only would it do nothing positive, but it would significantly weaken existing public health and environmental protections. It would give away billions of dollars to the oil and gas industry, while ignoring renewables and energy efficiency."

Mr. Nayak calls the Senate bill "more of a disappointment," adding, " While they do take positive steps forward on renewable energy and energy efficiency, they fail to do anything meaningful on global warming. They fail to do anything meaningful on oil dependence and production, and they also provide billions of dollars in subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

Indeed, both the House and Senate energy bills get high praise from the U.S. petroleum industry. John Felmy is chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute, the leading trade group for the oil and gas industry. He says the bills would give a boost to the economy and the American consumer.

He believes that, faced with increasing dependency on foreign oil supplies, the U.S. must expand domestic oil drilling and gas exploration. "The House bill makes the most important improvement in terms of additional supplies and the ability to produce more oil in this country," he says. "By opening the Alaskan area for the production of crude oil, we can significantly reduce our import levels and that would help consumers."

Over the last 4 years Congress has tried and failed to craft an energy bill. The legislation was defeated last year, because of a disagreement over a gasoline additive known to pollute groundwater, and a provision that would have protected its manufacturers from environmental lawsuits. The House has introduced that same measure this year.

The Senate bill calls for tax breaks for energy-efficient houses, commercial buildings and hybrid cars that run on both gasoline and electric power. It also mandates that 10% of the electricity sold in the United States must come from renewable sources. The House has no such provision. Both bills provide tax incentives for nuclear power plant construction.

John Byrne is the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. He describes both bills as being more backward than forward thinking, especially given the global stakes involved in America's energy policy: "Our decisions affect not only the U.S. economy, but can affect the world economy as well due to globalization," he says. "I think that what we really need at this juncture is to recast the energy challenge away from this approach that depends on industry stakeholders deciding what is best, and to move to a better broader understanding to what the real challenge is."

Mr. Byrne says the focus must shift from production to sustainability. Already 350 cities have adopted a range of policies to move forward in a low carbon approach that also protects their economy. He says the states -- not the federal government -- are really charting this course. "Currently 22 states in the United States are now requiring their electricity providers to provide at least a percentage of their electricity generation from renewable energy sources," he says. "They have been able to get the electrical industry to come in with representatives of labor and with representatives of industry as well as environmental and civil society groups to sit down and say, 'What do we need to do? What are the goals that we need to set for our energy system?'"

John Byrne of the University of Delaware says the U.S. Congress must also find answers to these questions. But they don't have a lot of time. President Bush has asked Congress to submit an energy bill he can sign into law by August.

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