In a Power Bar of a Bill, the Senate Tackles Energy ; This Week's Agenda Spans Fuel Cells and Clean Coal, but Environmentalists Still Fret

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With 392 possible amendments in the wings, the Senate this week takes on the biggest overhaul of energy policy in a decade - and aims to wrap it up within a matter of days.

It's a huge and highly complex bill, covering everything from pilot programs for bicycles to the first incentives for new nuclear- power production in a quarter century. With natural-gas prices soaring, everyone agrees a new national strategy on energy is needed.

But winning consensus on such a massive bill has never been easy. The fights over energy are often regional, rather than partisan. They involve clashes among some of the most powerful corporate and environmental groups in Washington. And the process often fails of its own weight.

Unlike last year's energy bill, which was drafted on the floor of the Senate and foundered in conference, this bill is the result of carefully calibrated back-room negotiations, mainly involving GOP lawmakers.

The Senate bill includes more than $35.5 billion for research and development, including $1.7 billion for nuclear energy, $2 billion for clean coal, and $1.8 billion for President Bush's hydrogen fuel- cell initiative. It authorizes a new natural-gas pipeline from Alaska and eases permits for oil and gas exploration. At least $15.5 billion in tax incentives for energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean coal, and natural gas are expected to be added this week on the Senate floor.

Early on, Republicans ruled out issues that have been the most divisive in the past, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), although that issue could come up in final negotiations between the House and Senate. New regulations mandating the use of 5 billion gallons of renewable fuel additives in gasoline also gave the lumbering energy bill an early lift. The boost for ethanol is a high priority for corn-belt Democrats, who are now expected to support the bill.

Republicans also deliberately backed the bill up against the August recess, one of the most inflexible dates on the Senate calendar. Senate majority leader Bill Frist says he will not allow the Senate to recess without an agreement on energy. "We simply must diversify our sources of energy, and we must do so in a way that lessens our dependence on foreign sources for this energy," he said last week.

Environmental activists say it's a formula for bad legislation. "It will be very difficult to vote against an energy bill. There are lots of things in this bill that most people don't know about that need to be addressed," says Robert Perks, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the bill. …