Last fall, the energy bill passed the House, only to die a grisly death on the Senate floor. But this spring, top Senate Republicans prodded the bill into a new form, stitched it onto another bill and nearly marched it into law. The controversial bill, which would increase domestic oil and gas drilling and force federal agencies to expedite permits for energy projects on public lands, has long raised the hackles of environmentalists (HCN, 12/8/03: As Congress adjourns, the environment is left in limbo). Fiscal conservatives also decried the bill’s $31 billion price tag. Campaign finance reform maverick Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., even nicknamed the bill the "Leave No Lobbyist Behind Act of 2003."
But this spring, as American drivers faced record-high prices at the gas pump, Republican lawmakers thought their stars had finally aligned. By preying on the panicky public consumer, and emphasizing the need to increase domestic drilling, they thought they could pass the energy bill — and have a ready-made election-year platform: "I’m glad oil prices are up, I’m glad gas prices are up," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told the press in March. "I’m sorry I’m not running this year."
As prices continued to rise, the energy bill’s future looked even brighter: On March 31, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC) announced it was cutting oil production by 1 million barrels per day, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged the bill’s immediate passage.
Domenici and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., dropped some of the bill’s more controversial aspects, including a provision that would have exempted MTBE gasoline-additive producers from liability for groundwater contamination. Then they split the energy package and attached portions of it onto a sure-to-pass bill drafted to end a trade dispute among U.S. manufacturers, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. Although scaled back from Domenici’s earlier bill, the energy provision was still a boon to industry, containing $7.4 billion in tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry, $2.2 billion for "clean coal" and $968 million for electricity deregulation.
But on April 7, by a vote of 50 to 47, the Senate defeated the energy bill again. All but three Democrats voted against the bill, and all but four Republicans supported it. John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona’s other Republican senator, were among those who opposed it.
"(The energy bill) was clearly one of the Bush administration’s top priorities right when they came in," says Sharon Buccino, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And the issue became polarized right from the beginning." But, she adds, support for the bill goes beyond partisan politics. Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, S.D., for instance, supports certain provisions of the larger energy package that would boost ethanol production from corn, and thereby bring money into his state (HCN, 2/16/04: Ethanol takes off in the West).
Following the money may, in fact, be an easy way to determine where a lawmaker stands on the energy bill. There is a "direct correlation" between how lawmakers voted and where they get their money, says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s energy and environment program. Since 2001, she says, the oil and gas industry has given $67 million to federal candidates — and 79 percent of that money has gone straight into Republican coffers. During his 2002 Senate race, Domenici received more than $368,000 from oil, gas and electric companies; individual energy corporations pitched in another $57,000.
The energy industry has also been kind to Western Republicans who smoothed the bill’s way through the House last fall — and who are up for re-election this year.
Two of the bill’s champions on the House Resources Committee were Reps. Richard Pombo of California and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. They both support drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and blame environmental laws for U.S. dependence on foreign oil. They have also attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, asserting that his proposed auto efficiency standards would lead not only to job losses but to the manufacture of unsafe vehicles.
A peek into their coffers may explain that fervor: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes data from the Federal Elections Commission, between January and December 2003, Pombo, chair of the House Resources Committee, received more than $75,000 from the energy industry, and another $20,000 from El Paso Corp., Chevron Texaco, Duke Energy and Valero Energy. During that same time, Cubin received more than $94,000 from the energy industry; and 11 individual energy or mining companies gave her another $52,000.
As for the energy bill itself, debate will likely resume after Congress’ spring break at the end of April.
The author is HCN assistant editor.