Full Steam Ahead On Energy Bill

Oil rig, Socorro, New Mexico, US Bureau of Land Management photo on black
The House has approved a broad energy bill with provisions including oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, extending daylight saving time by two months, and shielding makers of a gasoline additive from water contamination lawsuits.

The largely Republican-crafted bill was approved 249-183 after two days in which the GOP majority turned back repeated attempts by Democrats to add measures they said would reduce energy use, including a proposal for higher automobile fuel economy requirements.

To foster less energy use, the House bill calls for extending daylight-saving time by two months and offers tax breaks for homeowners to install more energy efficient windows and insulation. The bill also requires refiners to use more corn-based ethanol in gasoline.

The bill includes $12 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for energy companies, more than the Bush administration said it wanted. Nevertheless the White House strongly endorsed the measure.

After passage, President Bush praised the bill as "an important step to secure our energy future and to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy." Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the measure was not perfect, but "we now have a bill, something to work with."

Democratic critics of the legislation argue that it will have little impact on U.S. reliance on oil imports and fails to address high gasoline and other energy prices.

One contentious issue during debate involved the gasoline additive MTBE. The bill calls for shielding MTBE makers from product liability lawsuits stemming from contamination of drinking water supplies. Democrats warned the liability waiver would leave the public with billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

An attempt by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., to strip the MTBE assistance from the energy bill was defeated, 219-213.

Capps said groundwater contamination from the gasoline additive has affected more than 1,800 community water systems in 29 states with a potential cleanup cost of $29 billion. MTBE makers, including large oil companies and refiners, dispute that estimate but have argued they need liability protection because of an expected surge in lawsuits.

The MTBE provision has been a top priority of Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who argue that Congress endorsed the widespread use of the additive when it required gasoline contain an oxygenate to help clean up the air.

Both are from Texas where major MTBE manufacturers are located.

The energy bill would shield these companies from lawsuits claiming that MTBE is a defective product and that the companies knew all along it would cause water contamination problems. At least 80 lawsuits involving MTBE have been filed.

The bill also calls for phasing out MTBE use by the end of 2014 — longer than MTBE critics say is necessary — and would provide $2 billion over eight years to help the manufacturers shift away from making the additive.