WASHINGTON - The House by a wide margin approved a mammoth energy plan for the nation Thursday that sends billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to energy companies, but is expected to do little to reduce U.S. oil consumption or dampen high energy prices.
"It is not a perfect bill," said Sen. John Dingell, D-Mich. But he called it "a solid beginning" to diversifying future energy sources, improving the nation's aging electricity grid and fostering more energy conservation.
The bill was approved 275-156. Congress now awaits action by the Senate, probably on Friday. The White House said President Bush looks forward to signing it into law.
Facing public pressure to outline a direction for the nation's energy strategy amid soaring oil prices and high gasoline costs at the pump, Bush had called on Congress to give him an energy bill before lawmakers depart for their five-week summer recess.
The 1,725-page bill, the product of weeks of compromise between widely different versions approved by the two chambers earlier this year, would provide $14.5 billion in energy tax breaks, much of it to traditional energy companies. It also provides money for promoting renewable energy sources and new energy technologies and measures to revitalize the nuclear power industry.
"This is a good bill for America," declared Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a key author of the legislation.
But opponents called the legislation a giveaway of taxpayer money to large energy companies, including wealthy oil giants reaping record profits with crude oil near $60 a barrel and gasoline averaging well over $2 a gallon.
"This bill is packed with royalty relief, tax breaks, loan guarantees for the wealthiest energy companies in America even as they are reporting the largest quarterly profits of any corporation in the history of the United States," complained Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
"It is politically and morally wrong," he said.
The bill would funnel $2.7 billion in tax breaks to the oil and gas industries and provide additional support in form of royalty relief, including $500 million over 10 years for research into drilling in extremely deep areas of the Gulf of Mexico.
While emphasizing the president's enthusiasm for the bill, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman acknowledged the administration was concerned about some provisions, including the level of subsidies for profitable oil companies.
"The oil and gas companies don't need incentives with oil and gas prices being what they are today," Bodman said Wednesday.
The legislation would be a boon to farmers. It requires oil refiners to double the use of corn-produced ethanol in gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012.
Among the provisions most apparent to consumers are its call to extend daylight saving time by one month and tax breaks for making homes more energy efficient and for hybrid gas-electric cars.
Bush has said that one way to help ease gas prices is for Congress to pass a comprehensive energy strategy. But the White House acknowledged that the legislation itself won't do much to reduce pump prices in the short-term.
"We didn't get into this overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday.
"What this legislation will do is put us on a path to reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy," he said. "It will help address those root causes that lead to higher energy prices and that is what is important."
Other major provisions in the legislation include:
- Subsidies and tax breaks for wind, geothermal and solar industries and technology aimed at making coal more environmentally friendly.
- New efficiency standards for commercial appliances from air conditioners to refrigerators.
- Requirement for utilities to meet federal reliability standards for the electric transmission grid, hoping to avoid future blackouts like the one in the summer of 2003.
- Easing the way for more imports of liquefied natural gas by giving federal regulators final say over import terminals.
- Spurring construction of new nuclear power reactors by offering loan guarantees and "risk insurance" against regulatory delays for the initial units to be built.
- A nationwide inventory of offshore oil and gas resources. Critics said they're concerned the inventory may lead to drilling in areas now off limits.
A provision that had passed the Senate to require the president to find ways to reduce U.S. oil demand by 1 million barrels a year by 2025 was abandoned because of strong opposition from House Republicans and the administration.
"We're going to have imported oil in our economy for a long time," Barton, a former petroleum engineer, told reporters, responding to criticism by some Democrats that the bill, despite its expansive reach, does virtually nothing to curtail growing U.S. oil demand.