Democrats Alarmed Over Energy Bill's Impact

California Democrats contend Republican-drafted energy billjeopardizes the environment, subsidizes Midwestern states and does little to prevent the type of misconduct that fueled the state's energy crisis

Published: 17-Nov-2003

INGTON - The Republican-drafted federal energy bill has raised the ire of California's Democratic legislators, who contend it jeopardizes the environment, subsidizes Midwestern states and does little to prevent the type of misconduct that fueled the state's energy crisis.

"I think California's hurt more by this legislation than any other state in the country," said Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and ranking Democrat on the Committee on Government Reform.

"It could lead to weakening of our environment in California, it gives special breaks to the energy industries and it's going to cost Californians a lot of money for no purpose."

Republicans disagree, saying the bill - the first major overhaul of the nation's energy policy in a decade - will increase supply, streamline bureaucracy and encourage the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biodiesel.

"It looks at near-term solutions - opening lands and bringing more gas and oil onto the market," said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, chairman of the House Resources Committee. "But I think it also ... looks at the future in terms of where are we going to be 10 years from now or 20 years."

"I think the wind and solar businesses will be very happy with what comes out of this energy bill," Pombo added.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled Congress finished a draft of the bill Friday, setting the stage for near-certain approval in the House.

Resistance is likely in the narrowly divided Senate. California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer indicated Friday they oppose various provisions, including one that would shield makers of MTBE from product liability lawsuits.

The gasoline additive has emerged as a major water contamination problem in Orange County and communities including Santa Monica and Cambria.

In South Lake Tahoe, four oil companies agreed last year to pay $69 million to settle claims that MTBE was a "defective product" that could contaminate water supplies.

That legal argument is barred by the energy bill, although supporters say communities still could sue if they can prove someone was responsible for a leak or spill.

Critics say in most cases, that would protect the industry.

"It sounds like those who poisoned our water with MTBE will get off scot-free," Boxer said in a statement.

California is phasing out MTBE and it is supposed to be banned from gasoline in the state starting Jan. 1.

California officials, including many Republicans, also object to a provision that would double ethanol production to 5 billion gallons a year by 2012. The corn-based additive and MTBE are the only products available that satisfy federal requirements that gasoline include an oxygenate to reduce pollution.

California officials have sought unsuccessfully for more than two years to get a waiver from the oxygenate requirement.

State officials argue that because of California's cleaner-burning fuel, the additives are unnecessary and costly.

"It's going to make California more vulnerable to shortages, it could drive up prices, and we simply don't need this huge mandate for ethanol to meet the Clean Air Act," said Howard Gantman, Feinstein's spokesman.

However, the provision is extremely popular with lawmakers from farm-belt states where ethanol is produced.

California Democrats also contend the energy bill would crack open the door to offshore drilling, in part by making it harder for the state to control activities off its shoreline.

Supporters deny the legislation will make offshore drilling more likely.

Waxman and other California Democrats also complain that the bill doesn't add any significant new oversight to prevent the type of supply and price manipulation that contributed to the state's 2000-2001 energy crisis.

The legislation does address some issues highlighted by the crisis - for example, strengthening the power of federal regulators to order refunds for overcharges - but supporters said Enron-style market manipulation already has been addressed by federal regulators and others.

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