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Red, White, and Ready: The Patriotic Push for Energy Legislation

After 10 years of waiting, some experts say a Republican-controlled Congress and a patriotic mood will make the difference in passing energy legislation this year.
Fortnightly Magazine - May 1 2003

After 10 years of waiting, some experts say a Republican-controlled Congress and a patriotic mood will make the difference in passing energy legislation this year.

Could this be the year that Congress passes a comprehensive national energy bill? That's the question on the mind of the utilities industry. Some say with Republicans controlling both the U.S. House and Senate-not to mention the presidency-the prospects for comprehensive energy legislation are bright. But some pundits are not so sure.

Peter Fox-Penner, principal and chairman of the Brattle Group, says, "I wish Congress could, but I think the odds are against it," due partly to the war. "The president has a tax proposal. Last Congress couldn't even pass a budget. Hopefully, this Congress will do better at that," Fox-Penner noted. "Although I think energy is extremely important, we no longer have what I would characterize as a crisis in our electric power sector-at least a supply crisis. We do have terrible financial conditions, so I don't know that it will just break through the priority list on Capitol Hill."

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told the Fortnightly there are numerous distractions in addition to the war. He noted that Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the energy committee chairman, wants to work on the bill before the Easter recess and has plans to take the bill to the floor in May. "I think that is probably a good schedule, but I don't know if we can meet it or not because we have the budget bill, major changes in Medicare/Medicaid and prescription drugs, the tax bill, and all others follow that." But Bunning added, "My guess is that if the majority leader gives us time on the floor in May that we will be able to get a comprehensive energy bill. I'm not going to do that little deal where we do this and we do that. We have to have a comprehensive energy package."

Many senators believe that the president's State of the Union address decrying U.S. dependence on foreign oil and proposing a $1.2 billion investment in hydrogen research has given a new, almost patriotic purpose and urgency to passing energy legislation.

House Rules

On the House side, one month after the Jan. 28 address by the president, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Tex., and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., released a 285-page draft comprehensive energy bill, the Energy Policy Act of 2003. Tauzin, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Barton, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, called the draft a "first step" toward a national energy policy.

The draft would:

  • include large appropriations for energy efficiency and conservation, distributed energy, and hydrogen-powered vehicles;
  • almost double the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to more than 1 billion barrels;
  • reauthorize the Price-Anderson Act;
  • repeal the Public Utility Holding Co. Act of 1935 (PUHCA) 12 months after enactment of PUHCA of 2003, which will allow federal and state regulatory bodies to access utility holding company records;
  • amend the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978