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Congress struggles to write an energy strategy
McClatchy Newspapers


June 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Even as senators were debating a national energy bill for the fourth straight day last week, a representative of a Washington state office-products supplier was testifying elsewhere on Capitol Hill that her company is being squeezed by gasoline prices that have jumped 35 percent in two years.

"We just don't have a lot of options," Janet Myrhe of Chuckals Office Products told the Senate Small Business Committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked the Tacoma businesswoman a quick question and then hustled to the Senate floor, where senators were debating whether nuclear and coal should be considered renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Congress is struggling to write an energy strategy as government experts warn that gasoline prices could return to record levels by the end of the summer, the United States remains increasingly dependent on foreign oil and concerns mount over global warming.

Lawmakers are considering raising auto-mileage standards for the first time in 18 years, imposing stiff fines and criminal penalties for gasoline-price gougers, increasing production of biofuels and providing greater tax incentives for solar, wind and other alternate energy sources.

As in past years, coal, oil, auto and other manufacturing interests are furiously lobbying to block or dilute such measures. Their allies on Capitol Hill include Democrats who lead key committees. The White House is issuing almost daily veto threats.

"The 'carbon caucus' is big," said Cantwell.

For Democrats such as Cantwell, the bill represents the first major test of whether they can start to wean the nation from its seemingly unquenchable thirst for petroleum products and, in doing so, start to address the issue of global warming.

The debate had moved beyond the issues that dominated the energy debate early in the decade: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, using methyl tertiary-butyl ether in fuel, offering ethanol subsidies or producing hydrogen-powered vehicles. The new buzzwords are "carbon sequestration," "renewable energy portfolio," "coal liquefaction," "cap and trade" and "cellulosic ethanol."

"I feel like things have changed a bit," said Cantwell, who along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is leading the Democratic effort.

Democratic leaders in the Senate hope to pass a final version of the bill by July 4. On the House side, a draft of a comprehensive energy bill circulated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee already has run into trouble.

Among other things, the measure would pre-empt efforts by a dozen states to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles by 30 percent, starting with the 2009 model year.

"Progress on this issue has been coming from the states, not D.C.," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., a member of the House energy committee. "We should not put a chokehold on it. We don't want to move backward on this."

The chairman of the House committee is Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, home to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The chairman of the committee's energy and air quality subcommittee is Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, a coal state.

"I know what we are up against," said Inslee.

Sensing the looming problem, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., formed the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which Inslee said will produce its own bill later this year.

"This is the July Fourth round," said Inslee, also a member of the select committee. "There will be another round this fall."

Cantwell's proposal to implement safeguards against price-gouging is under assault by the oil industry, manufacturing groups and the White House, which has called it a step toward price controls and long lines at the gas pump.

The auto industry has been battling a proposal to raise gas-mileage standards of cars and trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with 4 percent annual increases from 2021 to 2030. That's roughly a 40 percent increase from today's standards.

Cantwell said it would have been better to set even higher mileage standards.

But "it will be hard to get even this," she said.

Europeans are going to a 42.5-mpg standard in four years, Inslee said.



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Ketchikan, Alaska