SPECIAL REPORT: Second energy bill dies in Senate committee

| 10/27/2005

A piece of legislation that would've helped oil companies build new refineries was shot down in a Senate committee on Wednesday, Oct. 26, amidst concerns that it would also have padded the pockets of oil companies and given the silent treatment to important environmental regulations.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, fell off the party wagon and voted with eight Democrats to defeat the measure in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The final vote was 9-9, with Chafee's vote creating the tie and therefore killing the bill.

Chafee said in a statement that he could not support a bill that only dealt with supply problems.

"We have failed to address our consumption," Chafee said. "There is still time to do something in a comprehensive way."

Supporters of the bill, however, said Chafee's and the Democrats' decision to vote against the bill did nothing to improve skyrocketing fuel prices.

"The only reason to oppose this is to keep us from being able to resolve a serious problem and use it for political purposes," James Inhofe, R-OK, told Environmental News. "Unfortunately, the minority has chosen not to work with us and apparently prefers to have gasoline prices remain high."

Following weeks of controversy from Democratic critics, the Republican-crafted bill squeaked its way through the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, Oct. 7. 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 the following week. No Democrats voted in favor of the legislation.

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 Associated Press 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 have given 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 contained 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 said limiting "boutique fuel" production would help refineries to concentrate on the most needed blends. Critics said the move would've 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 was 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, Aug. 8.

- By Aaron Ladage, staff writer