Energy Bill Spends Lots, Does Little

Aside from a few modest provisions opening federal sites for oil and gas exploration, critics charge that the much-awaited energy bill (H.R. 6) is a pork-laden payoff to special-interest groups that will do little to power America’s growing economy or decrease dependence on foreign sources of energy.

The U.S. Senate is scheduled this weekend to debate the final version of the bill, which passed the House late on November 18. Although a left-right coalition will try to filibuster the bill, its passage is expected.

The bill provides for a modest increase in oil and gas exploration on federal land, but will not open up the large oil reserves in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or various oil-rich offshore locations.

It also includes provisions that may slightly improve administration of the nation’s power grid-an attempt to prevent future blackouts like the ones that hit the Northeast earlier this year.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute told HUMAN EVENTS that conservative groups, while not enthusiastic, are just happy to have a bill that does not include onerous environmental regulations. Unlike the bill that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate last year, this year’s bill will not impose unrealistic fuel efficiency standards on automobiles. Nor does it require utilities to produce a certain percentage of their electricity using more costly and less efficient forms of power like wind and solar.

Most importantly, it will not include new regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. A provision to impose caps on such emissions failed to pass in a floor vote on October 30 (see “Roll Call: Senate Nixes Kyoto-Style CO2 Regulations”).

But what has most riled legislators on both left and right are special interest provisions that make up most of the bill’s $32 billion, ten-year price tag-three times the amount originally requested by President Bush.

“As long as you’re not a taxpayer, it’s a lot easier to find something good in the bill,” quipped Ebell, who said his group is nonetheless supporting passage. “Whenever you want to attract support, you have to buy off various constituencies.”

“It’s been believed that President Bush-a Republican and conservative-could be the one who would go after corporate subsidies,” said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste, which opposes the bill. “That’s going to be difficult given that they’ve expanded them in the energy bill. . .They’ve reduced their credibility for other spending items.”

Of the $32 billion in the bill, $20 billion will go toward construction of an unnecessarily long 3,600-mile natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states. This project, vociferously advocated by the powerful Alaskan congressional delegation, will cost about $1 billion more than would a shorter, more direct pipeline from Prudhoe Bay along Canada’s Mackenzie river to the lower 48 states. But the bill specifically forbids any pipeline along the shorter route, because that might result in less money being spent in Alaska.

Many provisions are even more controversial. Ethanol production will receive a huge boost as subsidies for the corn-based fuel additive are doubled to $2 billion under the energy bill. Taxpayers will be slapped for this generosity a second time when they face higher prices at the gas pump, thanks to the bill’s new mandate of 3.1 billion gallons of ethanol in the nation’s gasoline supply next year, and nearly 32 billion gallons over the next eight years.

“It simply redistributes money to subsidies for Midwestern agriculture products,” read a written statement by Sen. John Sununu (R.-N.H.), whose press spokeswoman said on Thursday that he will support a filibuster of the bill.

Critics also argue that ethanol, which is strongly supported by farm-state legislators of both parties, does not actually reduce American dependency on oil. As HUMAN EVENTS reported previously, the energy input required to produce ethanol is greater than the fuel additive’s energy output (June 16 issue, page 5).

The bill also allocates $220 million for an environmental learning center in Iowa.

One of the few spending provisions in the energy bill that will actually produce a significant amount of new energy is a $1 billion allotment toward constructing a nuclear plant in Idaho. Idaho is the home state of Sen. Larry Craig (R.), who sits on the Senate Energy Committee.

Asked whether there is anything in the bill for conservatives to cheer about, Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.), chairman of the Energy Committee’s Environment and Public Works subcommittee, told HUMAN EVENTS that Republicans must gain a stronger majority in the Senate if they want a better bill.

“Realistically, when we have a Senate that is obstructing like the Democrats are obstructing right now, to have 51 votes means nothing,” said Inhofe. He said that conservative provisions to dramatically increase the use of nuclear power, exploit large natural gas reserves on federal land, and open oil drilling offshore and in the Alaskan refuge, will not happen until after the next election.

“I have no doubt in my mind after the ’04 elections we are going to have at least a 55-45 Senate,” said Inhofe. “I have never from the beginning thought we were going to get a real good energy bill in this session. But I thought, we’re going to get a start now and then finish it when we have a 55-45 Senate.”