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KWAME HOLMAN: Despite a strong bipartisan vote in favor of the energy bill in the House late yesterday, it was clear this morning in the Senate that many members of both parties were united in opposition to the sprawling, 1,200-page bill. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden said the final bill, known as a Conference report, was written by a Republican-led committee and is full of special interest provisions.
SEN. RON WYDEN: We have been told that a conference report, particularly, is part of a give-and-take kind of discussion among various legislators and the various parties. Well, let me be real clear on that. If we’re using the give-and-take measure as a barometer of evaluating an energy bill, it ought to be clear that on this one, essentially the public interest is what is being given, and what is being taken is a whole package of goodies for the powerful and the influential.
KWAME HOLMAN: Getting to the final energy bill required give and take. For example, the president sacrificed his proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration. The massive final bill provides $31 billion in spending and tax incentives largely to boost development of oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power, and imposes reliability standards and penalties on the nation’s transmission system, or electricity grid, for the first time. But New York Democrat Charles Schumer said the bill fails to protect the country from another blackout, a major catalyst in pushing the energy measure to completion in the first place.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I find most amazing is the recent blackout that many of us in the northeast and the Middle West suffered. And we all know the reason is no one is in charge of the grid. In some places it’s power companies; in some places it’s a conglomeration; in some places it’s ISO’s. But there was a consensus immediately after the blackout: We ought to have one national grid governed by someone who would look out for the system. And to not have a national grid after what we saw on August 14, I believe the date was and to just sort of ignore history because a few special interests, a few power companies, didn’t like it?
KWAME HOLMAN: But Idaho’s Larry Craig said the nitpicking by his colleagues misses the larger good of the energy bill.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: My reaction to this bill, while anyone can stand on the floor and pick it to pieces, look at the whole. It is a market basket full of energy for the future of this country, to ensure reliability so when you wake up in the morning and you turn on the light switch, the light comes on; when you plug in your computer, the screen lights up; when you go to the Internet, you can communicate across the world instantly. And it’s all driven by energy. Every single miniscule thought is driven by energy.
KWAME HOLMAN: The energy bill also creates tax subsidies to help underwrite construction of a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline from Alaska to Chicago; doubles the use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive over the next ten years, a measure favored by farm-state legislators; and gives producers of MTBE, an additive blamed for ground water pollution, immunity from lawsuits. That provision incensed senators from the northeast, whose states have suffered from MTBE pollution. New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, one of several Republicans considering trying to block the energy bill, described what some of his constituents have experienced.
SEN. JUDD GREGG: If you’ve ever been in a house – and I’ve been in several — that has an MTBE pollution issue, it’s essentially unlivable. You can’t use the shower, you can’t use the sinks, the toxic smell is just overwhelming, and the water can’t be drunk, can’t be put on your body –
KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois democrat Dick Durbin said those people no longer will have a right to recover damages because members of Congress who wrote the bill instead bailed out the MTBE industry.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: MTBE producers know they’re vulnerable to these lawsuits. Well, if you’re vulnerable to a lawsuit for wrongdoing, if you’ve created a product which endangers thousands of Americans and thousands of communities, where should you turn? Come to Congress, come to Capitol Hill, come to mama.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, who authored much of the bill, said the M.T.B.E. Provision was critical in order to keep alive the issue most important to farm-state senators like Durbin: Doubling the use of ethanol.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Whatever has been said by the good senator from Illinois, all the farmers from his state that produce corn and the other products should know there is no way to get an ethanol bill of any consequence without addressing the issue of MTBE. Go to conference with a house like we did and say to them, “we want a bill just like the one that passed the Senate,” and they will say “not on your life unless you decide to treat those who produced MTBE, a forerunner to ethanol, fairly.”
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, senators who dislike the energy bill are un-persuaded and say they may mount a filibuster to block it. But Republican leaders say they’re determined to bring the energy bill to a final vote and will keep the Senate in session into next week to get one.