Under Cover of Darkness

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After months of stalemate, energy committee members from the House and Senate are shaping the most important energy legislation in a decade. Before the August blackout unplugged 50 million people in the Northeast and Canada, the legislation was going nowhere. Now it’s going somewhere — just not where Democrats and environmentalists want it to.

Republicans want to groove on the public’s post-outage call for Something To Be Done, to push through an all-or-nothing bumper package containing a lot of industry-friendly, decidedly un-green provisions; on top, that is, of the politically unopposable blackout-preventing improvements that the public, particularly those who spent August 14 in an elevator with ten other people, are calling for.

Instead of considering electricity-reliability legislation in a separate bill, as suggested by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), Republicans are hell-bent on ramming through their our-way-or-the-highway mega-bill. Dingell’s attempt to pass electricity reliability provisions separate from other energy related policy was defeated in the House by a vote of 211 to 176.

A notionally bipartisan conference committee made up of 13 senators and 45 representatives, is charged with considering a final bill to be drafted by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), Republicans described understatedly by Saturday’s New York Times as “dependable industry allies.” Domenici (described in the same article as the “patron saint” of the nuclear power industry), and Tauzin (whose district relies on oil and gas production) plan to hang out and write the legislation together, without too much interference from committee colleagues.

Energy legislation has long been tainted by industry influence, as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry recently noted:

“If it weren’t for this administration’s obsession with giveaways to their friends in the oil business, Congress likely would have passed an energy bill last year.”

This charge is tossed around by plenty of Dems and environmentalists, who fear that the urgency of improving electricity reliability will cause Congress to OK incentives for oil drilling, coal plants, and nuclear power, reports Chris Baltimore of Planet Ark. Given the steady rise in gas prices and instability in oil-producing countries, some are calling for fuel-efficiency as a means of kicking the oil habit. Here’s a Berkshire Eagle editorial:

“Even worse than the long list of tax breaks and subsidies for the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries, and almost as bad as a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is the failure of the plan to introduce a modicum of fuel-efficiency improvements in the U.S. automobile fleet. By simply requiring automakers to use existing technology and design SUVs and minivans to get the same gas mileage as regular cars, the U.S. could save 1.2 million barrels of oil a day.”

The potential passage of an energy bill means the revival of what’s arguably the most contentious energy issue in past years – drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, a pristine expanse of land in Northern Alaska that provides habitat for migratory birds, polar bears, caribou and other Arctic wildlife.

Dan Morgan of the Washington Post reports that Democrats vow to filibuster any provision that contains ANWR drilling. While a group of 5 (count ’em — 5) Republicans promised to help to keep ANWR drilling off the bill, the threat of a filibuster puts Democrats in a tight spot politically. Defending the refuge has long been a priority for Dems, but after the August blackout they don’t want to look like they’re obstructing energy legislation — and get blamed the next time Joe and Jane Public get stuck in an elevator.

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