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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Energy Update

Air Date: Week of

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The long-awaited energy bill is slowly moving forward in the Senate, but it's happening in a rather unusual way. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, talks with host Steve Curwood about the legislative maneuvering, and what it might mean for future energy policy.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The anthrax scare turned Capitol Hill into Capitol Chill when Senate Democrat Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office received a letter containing a potent strain of the bacteria. With dozens of office workers testing positive for exposure, the work of Congress has been stalled. Lawmakers have been trying to get back to some of the business that was pushed aside after September 11th. For example, the Senate Energy Committee was starting to draft an energy bill. Then Senator Daschle told them to stop. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Hi Anna.


CURWOOD: Anna, tell us what happened. Why did Senator Daschle stop this process?

GREENBAUM: Well, the reason he gave was that the committee process was going to take too long and be too divisive. Not only, of course, is there the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he was concerned that there were too many committees involved in different aspects of the bill, that they were kind of stepping on each other's toes. So basically he suspended those committee markups and he directed the chair of the Energy Committee, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico, to write up the bill himself.

CURWOOD: How do the Republicans on the energy committee respond to this? I mean, there are senators like Frank Murkowski from Alaska, Larry Craig of Idaho, who are some of the most vocal proponents of drilling in ANWR.

GREENBAUM: Well, they're angry, as you might imagine. They feel like the Democrats were scared, really; that Bingaman and others thought that they wouldn't win on ANWR in committee, that there would be enough votes to bring a bill to the floor that opened ANWR for drilling. So, the Republicans feel like they're being shut out of a fair process. Here's Senator Craig, who you mentioned. He's speaking, here at a news conference.

CRAIG: Arguing that they may create it in their own image, behind the closed doors of the Daschle office, is not a way to craft a good public policy. I read that in only one way. This is an issue that the Democrat leadership of the Senate wants to duck for now. This is an issue that cannot be ducked.

GREENBAUM: Steve, one interesting point here. The energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, was also at this news conference, representing the administration, and he was there mostly to bolster the Republicans and put some pressure on Democrats to get this bill moving faster. But it's worth noting the administration's been totally silent on Senator Daschle's decision to bypass the committee process.

CURWOOD: And am I right, Anna, didn't Senator Daschle make some kind of offer to Republicans if they would withdraw on the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

GREENBAUM: That's right. Senator Daschle came out with what he's calling a compromise proposal to drilling in ANWR. He's pushing another source of energy, it's also from Alaska, and it's the construction of an Arctic natural gas pipeline. Here's Senator Daschle.

DASCHLE: We are now, believe it or not, injecting natural gas back into the ground in Alaska. That natural gas could play a vital role in answering some of our energy needs in this country. Not only that, but the pipeline that we would build to transport that Arctic natural gas would employ 400,000 people. So there is no doubt in my mind, from an employment point of view, from an energy point of view, from an environmental point of view, that this makes a lot of sense.

GREENBAUM: So you can see, Daschle's pushing this particularly on the labor front, and you'll remember we saw in the House vote, back in August, the push from unions was really what wooed some Democrats over to the pro-drilling side. So with this pipeline offer Daschle's hoping he can provide another pro-labor option. It's a little disingenuous, maybe, for him to come out calling this a compromise, as if it's some type of sacrifice. This natural gas pipeline just isn't a very controversial issue. Most of the environmental community supports it, if it's built along a certain route. And the Republicans support it too, but they don't want it to be seen as a sort of quid pro quo for ANWR, as Daschle's trying to frame it. And I've talked with the Teamsters. They say the same thing.

CURWOOD: So, what happens from here?

GREENBAUM: Well, now Bingaman's going to draft this energy bill. At this point, he's just starting to sit down with staff from the different committees that have a role in energy policy. His office says that will include Republican staffers too. But I think it's clear that what we're going to see coming out of this process will be very much a Democratic energy bill. For environmentalists, that's probably a good thing. Here's Dan Becker, he's with the Sierra Club, and he's hopeful that this new process is going to result in a bill that's more to his liking than the one that the House came out with in August.

BECKER: The Democrats have now said that they're going to take a different tack in the Senate: that they're going to try to maximize energy efficiency and renewable energy, that they will ask the auto industry to do its fair share to reduce our oil dependence, and that there will be no effort to pillage the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a six-month fix of oil.

CURWOOD: So, when this bill comes to the floor, presumably without drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, what happens then?

GREENBAUM: Well, the Republicans will try to attach their own energy plan and that, of course, includes ANWR; they'll try to open it up for debate on the floor, and at that point some Democrat, most likely Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, is going to threaten a filibuster. Then Senator Daschle has said he'll allow a vote to cloture. Basically that means Republicans would need more than a simply majority, they'd need 60 votes to stop the filibuster and get the straightforward yes or no ANWR vote that they want.

CURWOOD: And that's going to tell us the fate of ANWR?

GREENBAUM: Well, it's not quite that simple. I think one of the major questions still to be answered is whether this is even going to come up before the end of this year. Senator Daschle has made no commitment on that. And we're also going to see drilling in ANWR come up in other forms. We've already seen Republicans trying to slip it in in other places. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma tried to pin it to the Defense Authorization Bill. Phil Gramm of Texas threatened to attach it to the Airline Security Bill. And, at this point, Republicans are promising to attach it to just about any legislation that moves through the Senate for the rest of the year.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon Greenbaum is our Washington correspondent. Thanks for joining us, Anna.

GREENBAUM: You're welcome.



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