Congressional Republicans took their energy legislation to the Senate yesterday and immediately ran into a barrage of criticism from members of both parties concerned about the huge bill's environmental impact and its favors for special interests.
After a day of debate, it was unclear whether supporters had the votes to prevent a filibuster that would block a final roll call on the measure, which is a priority of the Bush administration. The House passed the bill on Tuesday.
In the hectic lobbying for senators' votes, labor unions joined with energy companies to back the bill, which would pump billions of dollars into coal mining, pipeline construction and new investments in transmission lines and power plants -- creating jobs as well as profits. At the same time, environmental groups that oppose the bill found themselves at odds with traditional allies, such as groups representing producers of power from clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. Those industries would receive new tax credits.
Meanwhile, partisan alignments collapsed as senators divided along regional, rather than party, lines. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the measure is far from perfect, but he noted he will support it because of provisions that would help farmers. These include tax credits for wind power and for biodiesel fuel made from soybeans, and a mandatory doubling of the production of ethanol fuel made from corn.
"Now don't tell me that isn't good for this country," Dorgan said. "People who call ethanol a boondoggle just don't understand it at all. . . . It's growing our energy in our fields."
Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) said yesterday that he also supports the bill and may vote to head off a filibuster -- which can be overcome by 60 votes or more -- if Republicans allow adequate time to debate the legislation.
But Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) denounced the bill as "almost a gratuitous attack on New England" because of its incentives for midwestern coal-fired utility plants, whose pollution reaches the Northeast. He said the bill seems to have been "structured to benefit one area of the country over another."
Gregg said he is outraged by a provision that would exempt manufacturers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) from product liability lawsuits filed recently by communities in New Hampshire and other states.
As many as five Northeast GOP senators, including Gregg, were reported yesterday to have lined up behind a possible filibuster. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports the move, and sources said other western Republicans might join him.
The MTBE liability waiver -- inserted into the bill at the insistence of GOP lawmakers from the Gulf States -- emerged as a major issue for senators representing communities where the additive has been implicated in groundwater contamination.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said oil companies have known for years that the product contaminates water.
But Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who led the House-Senate negotiations on the bill, was defiant. "MTBE is a legitimate, valid product," he said, and manufacturers should not be held liable for damages unless their negligent handling of the product led to contamination.
Domenici told Durbin and other bill opponents: "If you kill this bill, you will kill ethanol. You will have given up and abandoned forever ethanol. . . . If that's what you like, follow the advice of the senator from Illinois, who has plenty of farmers waiting to see what's going to happen." Tax credits for wind power, he warned, would also go "out the window."
While the ethanol provision has cemented considerable backing for the bill among farm-state Democrats, provisions benefiting the coal industry are providing strong appeal to the Midwest and the Appalachians. Those regions would benefit from provisions that could help make high-sulfur coal -- a major cause of pollution by power plants -- more acceptable in the decades ahead.
The bill would provide the first tax credits for utilities that install advanced pollution control equipment. A major last-minute provision would authorize $2 billion to help older coal-burning plants comply with the Clean Air Act.
Such provisions would help coal -- the source of half of all U.S. energy production -- make a comeback against natural gas, the main source of new power production over the past decade. Natural gas prices have been rising.
"In my mind, this bill helps secure the future by allowing us to use coal in a whole new way, through investments in advanced research and development," said Joe Lucas, vice president of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, which is funded by coal-burning utilities.
The bill, nevertheless, has come under fire from some conservatives for its "pork barrel" projects and special-interest provisions. This week, a Wall Street Journal editorial said the Republican authors "have greased more wheels than a NASCAR pit crew."
The bill would provide financing assistance for a mall in Shreveport, La., that will house, among other things, a Hooters restaurant. McCain said the bill would subsidize "Hooters and polluters."
McCain also charged that the GOP drafters had slipped into the bill a provision to help Louisiana Energy Services Co. build a uranium enrichment plant in Domenici's state, New Mexico. He said the provision calls for an expedited environmental review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "The bill shortcuts the process and meaningful judicial review," McCain said.