Lawmakers Doubt Congress Can Agree on Energy Policy

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By Keith Schneider WASHINGTON - Lawmakers have responded to the Bush administration's national energy strategy with a flurry of competing proposals to raise gasoline taxes, improve automobile mileage, raise energy efficiency in businesses and homes, open sensitive regions to oil exploration, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for research on conservation and renewable souuces of energy.

At last count, the House Energy and Commerce Committee was reviewing 68 proposals for revamping federal energy policy, and, in the Senate, four main billse of the most influential lawmakers have expressed doubts that Congress will resolve fierce regional, economic and environmental issues and reach a consensus on a final package. The reason: Oil supplies are steady and prices have fallen since the end of the Persian Gulf war.

``At the moment, there are no gasoline lines or brownouts,'' Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said last month. ``I wonder if we are serious enough about energy to solve the problem at long last.''

Even if a bill emerges, staff experts in both houses say it is likely to take five or six months to reach the House and Senate floors.

The conference to resolve differences between the bills will take more time and, if successful, a final measure may be ready before the election in 1992.

Few members of Congress disagree that there is an energy problem. Low prices discourage domestic oil and gas production, economists say, while also encouraging people to waste energy.

The United States is importing nearly half its oil, accounting for half the $108 billion international trade deficit in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Most important, higher imports are vulnerable to costly disruptions of supply. Though the Bush administration insists the Persian Gulf war was primarily a response to Saddam Hussein's aggression, few in Congress doubt that it was also prompted by oil.

What nobody in Congress knows is whether the public views the Persian Gulf war as a call to action on energy policy or as the price a nation must periodically pay to preserve its oil-based way of life.

``Regrettably, we were not wise enough 10 years ago to continue the energy security measures enacted after the oil crises of the 1970s,'' said Rep. Leon E. Panetta, chairman of the House Budget Committee, who introduced an energy proposal last month that called for establishing a minimum price for oil. ``Our dependence has tragically resulted in war. How many times do we have to learn this lesson?''

The debate in Congress will be framed by two issues: whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 17.9-million-acre wilderness in Alaska, to oil and gas exploration, and whether to raise fuel mileage standards on automobiles by 40 percent.

The opening of the refuge was proposed on Feb. 20 by the Bush adminstration in its national energy strategy and was included in several congressional bills, including one introduced by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The president's plan also includes removing obstacles to the constructon of nuclear power plants, reducing restrictions on utilities that generate electricity for the wholesale market and simplifying lng the use of alternative fuels in vehicle fleets. …

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