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Kill the Billl

If anything merits drawing the filibuster sword out of its sheath, it is the energy bill that came out of a House/Senate conference this week.

True, a Supreme Court appointment, especially of a young Federalist Society judge like Roberts who has the potential to occupy the bench for forty years, is a decision with far-reaching implications. By comparison, a ten-year energy policy bill may seem less important and less deserving of the fragile power of the filibuster. But on the other hand, the world and America are at a critical juncture with regard to energy, and there is very little time left to change course.

We are about to reach the global peak of oil production. After it peaks, the flow of oil will be less and less every year. Once the oil is gone, it's gone, and there is no direct substitute for it. We have known this day was coming for at least thirty years, but the US has done little to prepare, other than to wage military campaigns in the Persian Gulf with the intent of controlling the world's largest remaining oil fields. We reached our own peak oil production back in the early 1970s.

We now import 60 percent of the 21 million barrels of oil we use each day, but the revised energy bill would do nothing to decrease America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

The Senate version of the bill, while still chock full of pork for the oil and nuclear industries, did have some modest provisions to promote renewable energy and conservation. Most of these are now gone, including:

  • A directive to the President to find a way to reduce oil consumption by 1 million barrels a day by 2015. Though non-enforceable, opponents said it was a back door to higher fuel efficiency standards and that (horrors!) it would force Americans into carpools.

  • A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring that at least 10 percent of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020. Gee, just about every country with a decent-sized economy already has an RPS in place, except for us. China passed the exact same RPS - 10 percent by 2020 - back in February.
  • A non-binding resolution recognizing that global warming is a real problem. Global warming remains unmentionable except as an excuse to pour money into so-called "clean" coal and nuclear power.
  • A ban on the groundwater-polluting gasoline additive MTBE. The Senate version would have phased out its use over four years. The final version has no ban.
  • About $5 billion in subsidies and tax incentives to encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Senate version supplied about $10 billion. The conference committee slashed the renewables and efficiency subsidies in half, and increased fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies.

There were many regressive provisions in either or both versions of the bill that remain in the final. Some of the worst are:

  • Massive cradle-to-grave subsidies for the nuclear industry. Conferees even piled on extra sweetener: $2 billion in risk insurance for the first six nuclear plants to get built and an expanded production tax credit.

  • Stripping states of the authority to approve LNG (liquefied natural gas) import terminals and handing sole authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Repeal of PUHCA (Public Utilities Holding Company Act) - the New Deal regulation that has kept our electricity cheap and our utilities solvent for 70 years. Without it, every utility in the country is vulnerable to Enron-style financial manipulation.
  • Energy industry exemptions to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act were all in the House but not the Senate version. Now they are in the final bill.
    A mandated off-shore oil survey that will use seismic methods (setting off underwater blasts) that are known to harm dolphins, whales and other sea life.

  • Tons of taxpayer money for the filthy rich oil, coal and gas industries, including an extra $1.5 billion snuck into the bill late Monday night AFTER the conference meeting had been gaveled to a close! The money would go to a special oil industry slush fund administered by an industry consortium based in Sugar Land, Texas - part of Tom DeLay's district.

A few nasties from the House version were dropped, and they are getting a lot of press, but it is not really such great news. Tom DeLay badly wanted a liability shield for MTBE manufacturers, and he didn't get it. But he did get a provision that allows manufacturers to move cases from state courts to federal. According to Christy Leavitt of PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), that will only benefit the manufacturers, as many MTBE lawsuits are based on state product liability laws. MTBE manufacturers knew for years that their product was polluting ground water and said nothing while continuing to make and sell it.

The other deal-killer dropped from the energy bill was authorization to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). But the Alaska delegation and Big Oil have already figured out the work-around for this one. They added hypothetical oil leasing revenue from ANWR into the federal budget back in March. This fall, there will be a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process where they can thread in the authorizing language to open the reserve. Voila! ANWR is toast.

The danger from this energy bill is huge and unprecedented. Oil we buy after the peak of production is going to get increasingly more expensive. We need to invest the remaining oil and gas in building a new energy infrastructure of renewable technologies like wind and solar power combined with an efficiency makeover for buildings, appliances and the transportation sector. We don't have any time, money, or energy to waste. Every wrong move we make now is going to cost us in the future, leaving us less prepared to live in a post-petroleum world.

Americans, despite how little the media tells us about Peak Oil and our energy situation, are aware that we must make a real change. In June, Yale University conducted a national survey that showed that even though Americans are deeply divided on many issues, more than 90 percent agree we are too dependent on foreign oil and we should mandate higher auto fuel efficiency standards. More than 86 percent want increased funding for solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies.

This is phenomenal. In a red-blue polarized nation, it shows that there is a strong purple constituency for a new energy future. It shows that, except in the few special interest states like Alaska, there is little risk to senators who vote against this energy bill.

The House will pass the bill. It is up to the Senate to stop it. President Bush wants a vote before the congressional recess starts next Monday, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on it either Friday or Saturday. The new bill is now 1700 pages long. Nobody has had time to read it all yet, and it must be read in order to determine if any other oil industry goodies have been illegally buried in it, so what is the rush?

Are there 41 senators, from any party, who will listen to their constituents, who will stand up for America and filibuster this energy bill? Are there 41 men and women in the Senate who will put America's national security, economic competitiveness, quality of life, well-being, and long-term survival ahead of the dim-sighted, Gollum-like greed of their corporate campaign contributors?

And even more important, are there 51 senators who will kill this bill?


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.

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