By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
June 22, 2005
With oil prices hitting $60 a barrel, Congress is putting together a massive new energy bill that directs the government to conduct seismic surveys using new 3-D technologies to determine how much oil and natural gas is under the oceans around the U.S. continental shelf.
Lawmakers say the inventory could move the country toward independence from foreign oil. Some industry surveys suggest that up to 60 percent of America's undiscovered oil could be located under the coastal seas.
Florida's two senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, fret that any discoveries uncovered by the tests will increase pressure to scrap a 24-year moratorium on offshore drilling around Florida, and result in new oil rigs being built off the coastline.
Martinez said any resumption of offshore drilling threatens Florida's $50 billion-a-year tourist industry. "If the unforeseeable happens, whether it's a hurricane, an industrial accident, a terrorist act, or what-have-you and our coastlines are soaked with oil, there is no amount of relief aid that can clean up the economic disaster," he warns.
On a 52-44 vote, the Senate on Tuesday rejected efforts by Martinez and Nelson to stop the new survey from taking place, and headed toward completing this week the most comprehensive rewriting of America's energy policy in 14 years. The House passed its version of the energy bill earlier this year, and President Bush is pressing Congress to iron out differences and have a new law on his desk by August.
Although the Senate version is crafted to rekindle the exploration of oil in the United States, experts doubt the legislation will have any impact on prices at the gas pump.
However, the proposed energy legislation in Congress would have a major impact on other areas of life in America.
It would save consumers pennies on electricity bills by requiring tougher energy standards for refrigerators, air conditioners and other household appliances, and it would provide tax breaks for expanded use of ethanol and generating electricity from windmills farms and fields of solar-collecting cells.
The House version even touches upon how kids get to school, authorizing $200 million for new "Clean School Bus" programs that would encourage development of buses running on alternative fuels rather than oil-based diesel.
One controversial part of the Senate legislation sets a goal of using renewable resources - such as windmills - to produce 10 percent of America's electricity by 2025.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., predicted that cries of public outrage will come when more than 100,000 windmills - some as tall as a football field is long - are sited in scenic windy areas offshore or near national parks. There are currently 7,000 electricity-producing windmills in the United States, mostly in California and Texas.
The new energy bills come with U.S. oil production at a 50-year low. About 58 percent of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed daily in the United States is currently imported. The Energy Department predicts that, by 2025, about 68 percent of oil consumed in the United States will be imported.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., says one solution could be under the outer continental shelf, most of which remains unexplored.
Current production of undersea oil is concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Landrieu noted that the new energy policy doesn't approve any offshore drilling, but only seismic surveys to find out what's available to be tapped in an emergency.
"This is not a drilling amendment," she said.
Environmentalists are lobbying to scuttle the legislation on the grounds it does nothing to discourage gas-guzzling suburban utility vehicles or require car manufacturers to produce engines that get more miles to the gallon.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an organization founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, says that from 3 million to 5 million barrels of oil a day could be saved by 2020 just by requiring new car engines to go farther on a gallon of gas.
Anna Aurilio, U.S. PIRG's legislative director, said that had Bush set a requirement in 2001 that new cars get 40 miles to the gallon, the United States today would be importing 350,000 fewer barrels of oil each day.
Environmentalists are also alarmed about provisions that encourage research on new nuclear power plants and drilling on federal lands. The House-passed version of the bill also backs drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the Senate avoided the heated issue - and a filibuster it would bring - noting it approved the plan in another bill earlier this year.
Once the legislation clears the Senate, it still could get mired in a House-Senate conference committee. Two previous efforts to adopt a new national energy program have died in a House-Senate conference in the last four years.
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