House to vote on new energy bill

Published on

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With gas prices above $3 a gallon, House Republicans say they have a solution: Increase refining capacity by loosening clean air and other rules that affect refineries. But their critics say they’ll usher in dirtier air and do little to curb the nation’s energy appetite.

The House is scheduled to vote Friday on a bill that would give federal regulators more authority to decide where to build new refineries and ease environmental rules for new and expanded plants.

A shortage of refining capacity has led to pump prices soaring, said bill
sponsor Joe Barton, R-Texas, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“If we expect gasoline to remain affordable for America’s working people, we absolutely must build additional refinery capacity,” said Barton, whose bill is supported by the oil industry and President Bush.

Opponents of the move say the bill would gut clean air laws at the expense of
public health and won’t do much to bring prices down. The legislation would scrap regulations that force plant owners to install the latest pollution-control equipment when they expand their facilities.

“Congress and the Bush administration need to step in and help move America toward a more efficient, less oil dependent, energy future while protecting consumers’ wallets, rather than oil companies’ profits,” said Navin Nayak of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group for consumer and environmental issues.

Environmentalists also protest that the bill does nothing to reduce demand for oil. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., hopes to offer an amendment to require automakers to build cars and sport utility vehicles that go farther on a tank of gas.

Friday’s Capitol Hill showdown comes just two months after Bush signed a sweeping energy bill. Lawmakers are using the damage done to the nation’s refineries and pipelines by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to reopen debate over divisive energy proposals that were rejected in the earlier bill.

The fight is set against a backdrop of gas prices that have jumped above $3 a gallon and utility bills that could be 30 to 70 percent higher this winter, according to the Energy Information Administration. Consumers are caught in the middle.

Jim Rodriguez of Buffalo, N.Y., is worried about how he’ll pay bigger bills this season.

“I was just talking to my wife about how I’m a little nervous this year,” said Rodriguez, who lives with his wife, two children, and a granddaughter. “The gas bill gets scary in the wintertime. It’s tough to keep up.”

Whether Rodriguez and others would get relief from additional oil refineries isn’t clear. One consumer advocate says the bill won’t end up adding substantial refining capacity because the oil industry makes more money when supplies are limited.

Refiners should be required to build excess capacity that kicks in during shortages, said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Calif.

“This is an industry that understands if demand exceeds supply, profits go through the roof,” he said. “This industry needs a stick in the hands of government to beat it.”

Bob Slaughter, who heads the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, says the industry has been adding capacity at existing refineries but hasn’t kept up with growth in gasoline demand.

The process of getting all the necessary permits to build a refinery is too difficult and is one of the main reasons that no new facility has been built since the 1970s, Slaughter said.

Even if the House passes the bill, it’s not certain that the Senate will take up the legislation. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has indicated that he does not want a battle over the controversial clean air issue.

On the Web:, House Energy and Commerce Committee., U.S. Public Interest Research Group., Energy Information Administration.

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