SPECIAL REPORT: House OKs second Energy Bill to boost refineries

| 10/7/2005

A Republican-crafted energy bill designed to increase the number of oil refineries squeaked its way through the U.S. House of Representatives Friday, despite weeks of controversy from Democratic critics who said the bill would pad the pockets of oil companies, eliminate environmental protections and do little to lower fuel prices for consumers.

The bill, HR 3892, also known as the Gas Bill, was approved by a vote of 212 to 210. The Republican leadership of the House allowed voting on the floor for more than 40 minutes - compared to the normally allotted 5 minutes - in hopes of passing the bill before a Congressional recess next week.

No Democrats voted in favor of the legislation. The chances of the bill surviving when it goes to the Senate are unclear, according to The Associated Press.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, introduced the bill on Sept. 26, which was amended by the House Rules committee on Oct. 6. The original bill also included further environmental provisions and authorized offshore drilling in Florida and North Carolina, but was simplified to help ease it through the House vote, The AP reported.

Barton said the legislation is a necessary step to meet demand and keep consumer fuel prices low.

"Hurricane Katrina has taught us some harsh lessons," Barton said in a statement. "One of those lessons resonated loudly in our committee's hearing on Katrina - if we expect gasoline to remain affordable for America's working people, we absolutely must build additional refinery capacity."

Democratic opponents, however, said the bill would give oil companies license to avoid environmental regulations and build refineries in areas that don't want them.

"Using Hurricane Katrina as their excuses, the Republicans are again pushing their special interest agenda," Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, told CNN.

The bill also contains a provision to lower the different blends of fuel a refinery must produce to six, compared to more than 40 that are currently recognized by the federal government.

Proponents of the bill say limiting so-called "boutique fuel" production will help refineries to concentrate on the most needed blends. Critics say the move could cause production problems for specialized - but more environmentally friendly - fuels, such as low-sulfur diesel.

The bill came to fruition after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita passed through the oil-rich Gulf Coast region, spotlighting shortfalls in U.S. oil production. The number of refineries has dropped from 325 in 1981 to about that half that number today, with production capacity dropping by about 1.3 million barrels a day during that same time period.

No new refineries have been built in the United States since 1976.

Although much smaller than the original, this is the second major piece of energy legislation to reach the legislature in two months. President Bush signed the original Energy Policy act of 2005, a sprawling $12.3 billion piece of legislation, on Aug. 8.

- By Aaron Ladage, staff writer