Pollutant May Snag Energy Bill

oil derrick in Firestone, Colo.
Congress is a vote away from sending a massive energy bill to the White House, but it could still hit a snag in the Senate over a dispute involving a gasoline additive that has contaminated drinking water in more than two-dozen states.

The Senate began debating the bill Wednesday, after the energy legislation won solid backing from Republicans as well as a surprising number of Democrats on Tuesday at it whizzed through the House by a 246-180 margin.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he expects senators to work through the weekend and possibly until early next week on the energy bill and other issues.

The measure, covering some 1,100 pages, would provide $23 billion in tax incentives and other measures to produce more coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power and double the need for corn-based ethanol, a bonanza for the Farm Belt states.

The boost in ethanol production to 5 billion gallons a year has broad Republican and Democratic support and is viewed as a key to getting the bill passed.

But some Senate Democrats are counting votes to see if they might be able to derail the legislation — the product of 2½ months of sometimes bitter negotiations between House and Senate Republicans — by a filibuster. They want stripped from the bill a provision that protects makers of MTBE from product liability lawsuits arising from the gasoline additive fouling drinking water.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has many other problems with the bill as well, calls the MTBE measure "a get out jail free card" for the oil and chemical companies leaving water cleanup costs to communities across the country. She and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said they have a number of Republicans ready to support a filibuster over the MTBE liability waiver.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who had insisted on the MTBE waiver during negotiations over the bill with the Senate, said Tuesday the MTBE liability protection is "vital" to stop lawsuits against a product that was used to meet a government requirement for air quality.

"In the last few weeks the trial lawyers have been on a rampage, filing suits all over the place" against MTBE manufacturers, said DeLay.

Senate Republican supporters of the bill said they weren't worried about the MTBE issue. They suggested while some Republicans may oppose the bill over MTBE, many more Democrats will vote for the legislation because of what it contains.

"I don't think it's a showstopper," Frist said.

When senators begin "to feel the grass roots" and hear back from their states, they will vote for the energy legislation, said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the bill's floor leader.

Still, a number of Republican senators, especially from the Northeast and far West, have expressed frustration about the overall bill — a blueprint for the nation's energy future energy agenda — and the size of the tax subsidies, which are thee times what President Bush had wanted.

"It's full of subsidies and I think not likely to produce much more energy," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., on Tuesday. "They basically had to go shopping for votes and at this stage ... those votes come very expensive and the taxpayers pay the price."

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will cost taxpayers nearly $32 billion, including about $23 billion in tax subsidies. Some private tax advocacy groups have put the cost twice that.

In Tuesday's House debate, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the bill was "loaded to the brim" with handouts to traditional energy industries such as oil, gas and nuclear power companies and "throws environmental concerns overboard."

"This bill was written in secret and kept from the light of day," complained Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., "And like lifting the lid of a garbage can, you get a strong smell."

Republicans countered that it will produce more diversity of energy sources and increase domestic energy production.

"This bill will do more for the security of our country than any legislation we've seen in a long time," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., calling it "a 21st century approach to energy."