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Senate Moves to the Next Crisis: Energy

June 12, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

After failing to pass an immigration bill, the Senate is moving on to something even more challenging: a comprehensive reform of U.S. energy policy.

The energy bill they are beginning to debate bears some resemblance to the immigration bill. It has a lot of separate and movable parts, its existence relies on keeping its provisions balanced, and it’s going to face an onslaught of controversial floor amendments. Consider what former senator and current Chrysler lobbyist John Breaux has said about it — if you didn’t know, you could just as well assume he was talking about the immigration bill:

>“This is going to be the mother of all bills. By that I mean, any one portion of it is important enough to affect completion of the whole bill.”

The whole immigration bill crumbled in the end because one of its most important provisions was critically altered by an amendment. A similar fate for this energy bill is likely — expected even.

But, there are some key ways that this energy bill is in a different situation than the immigration bill was in. Whether or not these differences are an advantage still remains to be seen. First, it has already been approved by the House of Representatives, so they aren’t building it completely form the ground up. Second, it doesn’t entail anything that is likely to strike up a public debate as heated as the one surrounding the path to citizenship — aka “amnesty” — aspect of the immigration bill. The controversial parts involve policy issues, not moral principles like upholding the rule of law. With the immigration bill, these moral concerns inspired citizens to get involved and contact their senators. The lobbying efforts for the energy bill will also be massive, but they will come from business interests such as the auto and oil industries, not the public.

The bill’s major provisions include tougher fuel standards for automobiles, price-gouging penalties such as the ones Bart Stupak (D, MI) passed in the House, a move to more renewable energy sources for utilities, and opening up the U.S. coast to offshore drilling.

These provisions will face a slew of amendments that could drastically change how they function in the overall bill. For example, Barack Obama (D, IL) plans to propose a program providing federal assistance to the auto industry to increase the gas mileage of their cars. Other debates that will be brought up through amendments are more subtle:

>Some debates are over basic questions that seem obvious but are not. Does “clean” and “renewable” energy include nuclear power? Should the government subsidize only “renewable” fuels, like wind or ethanol, or should it subsidize “alternative” fuels, including coal-based liquids, that might substitute for oil and reduce dependence on foreign oil?

The bill represents a collision between two objectives: Decreasing our dependence on foreign oil for the sake of national security and moving towards more renewable and cleaner energy sources for the sake of the environment. For the Democrats in charge, the trick will be to ensure that this bill means that a move away from foreign oil is a move towards more renewable sources. Since Democrats have generally been considered the weaker party when it comes to security issues, passing this bill would allow them to begin killing two birds with one stone.

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