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Energy Bill Advances In Senate: Offshore Drilling, Renewables Nearer

H. JOSEF HEBERT   06/17/09 05:16 PM ET   AP

Senate

WASHINGTON — Legislation that would require greater use of renewable energy, make it easier to build power lines and allow oil and gas drilling near the Florida coastline advanced Wednesday in the Senate.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill by a 15-8 bipartisan vote. But both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about the bill and hoped to make major changes when it reaches the Senate floor, probably in the fall.

The measure's primary thrust is to expand the use of renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal sources as well as deal with growing worries about the inadequacies of the nation's high-voltage power grid.

But the bill also would remove the last congressional barrier to offshore oil and gas development, lifting a ban on drilling across a vast area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that Congress put off limits three years ago. Drilling would be allowed within 45 miles of most of Florida's coast and as close as 10 miles off the state's Panhandle area.

The Senate bill for the first time would establish a national requirement for utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, a contentious issue that is likely to attract heated debate.

Twenty-eight states currently have some renewable energy requirement for utilities, but supporters of the measure argue a national mandate is needed to spur such energy development.

The legislation also would give much wider authority to federal regulators over the nation's electricity grid.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be given authority to approve the siting of high voltage power lines if states fail to act and would be given additional powers over cyber security on the grid.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he hopes to take up energy legislation after the August recess, although it's uncertain whether it will be merged with separate legislation addressing climate change. The House is working on a climate bill that includes many of the same energy issues addressed by the Senate bill.

While the bill was approved by a safe margin in the committee its prospects in the full Senate are anything but certain. Several senators called it too weak in its support of renewable energy development, while others said it ignored nuclear energy and greater domestic oil and gas production.

"None of us got all we wanted," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee's chairman, who was forced to agree to a variety of compromises to give the bill a chance of advancing. Nevertheless, he said the bill would help shift to cleaner, more secure sources of energy.

Bingaman and many of the panel's other Democrats had wanted at least a 20 percent renewable energy requirement. The bill requires 15 percent renewable use by 2021, but also would allow utilities to avoid a fourth of that mandate by showing improvements in efficiency. Renewable energy use could be cut further for utilities that increase their use of nuclear energy either from a new reactor or increased reactor output.

"This is an extraordinary weak bill," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

But Sanders voted to advance the bill, as did Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Both senators said they hoped the bill will be strengthened.

"I suspect their definition of strengthening might be somewhat different," quipped Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., whose own support of the bill came despite strong opposition to the federal renewable energy requirements on utilities.

Sanders wants the renewable energy requirement to be much higher, at 25 percent. Corker said the bill needs more to promote nuclear energy and domestic oil and gas production.

"We simply must do more to increase our domestic (oil and gas) production and use of nuclear energy," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the committee's ranking Republican. Still, she voted for the bill which includes a commitment to increase loan guarantees for a natural gas pipeline in her state from $18 billion to $30 billion.

The bill also calls for establishing a new office to steer grants and loan guarantees to clean energy projects, including nuclear and those using technology to capture carbon dioxide; creating an oil products reserve to be used if there are supply problems; and creating federal standards for efficiency standards for new building.

The Chamber of Commerce said the bill shows progress toward crafting a comprehensive energy policy, but some environmentalists said it falls short of shifting the country away from fossil fuels. With its new offshore drilling, support for coal and nuclear energy "this bill fails to live up to the vision of a clean energy future," complained Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth.

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Filed by Dave Burdick  |