Energy bill will likely boost drilling in the Rockies

Western senators parry over the nation's future energy supply

  • Dick Chenny energy bill cartoon


After the Senate passed an energy bill at the end of July, Democrats and Republicans both claimed victory. But a closer look at the bill, and how it was passed, shows that the real loser may be the environment, particularly in energy-producing states across the West.

The night before Congress broke for a monthlong recess, the Senate debated an energy bill drafted by New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R. Senate Bill 14, which would set the nation’s energy policy for the next decade, was based on Vice President Cheney’s Energy Policy; it would have provided tax credits for the oil and gas industry, mandated new nuclear power plants, and funded research on new nuclear weapons.

Over the previous few months, senators had also tacked on more than 400 amendments, addressing everything from electricity market manipulation (à la California’s “energy crisis”) to protecting Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas drilling.

As the night stretched on, debate seemed to be getting nowhere. Democrats accused Republicans of stalling, and Republicans blamed the slow pace on the Democrats’ “glut” of amendments. With hundreds of amendments still pending, no one was hopeful that the nation would have an energy policy anytime soon.

Then, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., suggested ending the standoff by passing a year-old energy bill that he had drafted with New Mexico’s other senator, Jeff Bingaman, D, back when the Democrats dominated the Senate. That bill was also a windfall for the oil, gas and nuclear crowd, but it mandated that 10 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, and it would force hydropower companies to retrofit their dams so fish could swim through. The bill had passed the Senate in 2002 by a vote of 88 to 11, but then died during conference, when the Republican House and Democratic Senate couldn’t reconcile the two versions.

Late that evening, Senators Daschle and Domenici switched the bills. Shortly thereafter, by a vote of 84 to 14, the Republican-dominated Senate passed an energy bill drafted a year before by two Democrats.

That night, leaders from both parties sent out triumphant press releases. The Democrats marveled that their bill had passed. The Republicans gloated that Domenici — who now chairs the committee charged with producing the final version of the bill — would be able to wrestle it back to their liking. In a press release that night, Domenici said, “The final bill will look more like what I produced in committee this spring than the bill we just passed.”

Rockies in the bulls-eye

While Democrats and Republicans joust over who “won” the energy fight, environmentalists say the final bill will be a compromise between a bad bill from the Senate, and an egregiously ugly one from the House.

Adam Kolton, legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, calls the House energy bill, which passed in April, the “Cheney Energy Plan on Steroids.” Written by Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, R-La., the bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, provide $1.1 billion in tax credits for oil and gas production, extend tax credits for existing coalbed methane projects, give $3.3 billion in tax breaks for “clean coal” production, and reimburse oil and gas companies for their costs in preparing environmental studies required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Now, Tauzin and Domenici will pound out the differences between the two bills. Bill Wicker, communications director for the Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, admits that the bill was a “Daschle/Bingaman bill going in (to conference) and it will be a Bush/Tauzin/Domenici bill coming out.”

Washington insiders say Domenici will leave drilling in ANWR out of the final bill — it’s too much of a lightning-rod issue (HCN, 4/14/03: Grass roots prevail in ANWR and Wyoming). But a boost for nuclear energy and weapons production, the relaxing of environmental regulations on public lands to accommodate oil and gas drilling, and increased incentives for coalbed methane drilling will likely make their way in.

If Domenici succeeds in pushing through his energy bill, says Randy Udall, director of the Aspen, Colo.-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, the Rocky Mountains will be in the “bull’s-eye of the target” for new energy development. Udall looks back to early environmental writer Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, who spurred an intellectual, and then political, debate on conservation ethics in the U.S. There’s no such intellectual debate on energy, says Udall: “An energy ethic hasn’t even been debated in Washington.

“At a time when our nation just finished its second oil war in 10 years, and Alan Greenspan is testifying (before Congress) about natural gas (shortages), the nation needs a common-sense energy policy,” says Udall. “But Washington has been on a holiday from reality for a long time.”

The author is an HCN assistant editor.

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