LOS ANGELES (UPI) — The Senate will begin debating comprehensive energy legislation next week in a plan that would make the federal government more accommodating to the development of domestic energy supplies.

Although the Bush administration declared a natural gas “crisis” earlier this summer, the Senate is expected to take a pass on trying to address short-term price issues and focus on clearing the way for the development of new supply sources of that will head off potentially disastrous shortages in coming years.

“This is comprehensive legislation that balances conservation, production, and incentives,” Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said at a news conference this week. “It recognizes the simple fact that this country must get back into the business of producing more energy in all forms.”

The energy bill has been criticized by some environmental and taxpayer advocates as a “giveaway” to the large energy companies that are among the White House’s blood brothers.

The legislation largely reflects the administration’s basic premise that current conservation and alternative energy technologies are just not enough to offset a projected 1.5-percent growth in U.S. energy demand over the next 22 years.

Periodic fluctuations in the supply of gasoline, natural gas and electricity can be offset to an extent by conservation. Making certain that chronic shortages, the administration and the energy industry contend, will require greater access to resources on federal lands and an easier means of getting new pipelines and power transmission lines built.

“Because we cannot control supplies simply by turning a natural gas faucet, the only way to deliver new domestic supply is for all of us to work cooperatively to make available some of the vast potential natural gas reserves on non-park government lands,” Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a letter last week that updated the House of Representatives on the nation’s natural gas situation.

The letter continued, “Given the years necessary to acquire needed leases and permits … policy changes are needed now so the supply-and-demand imbalance does not become more pressing in the future.”

The simmering debate over energy in recent months has been focused on Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, where sizable reserves of oil could keep West Coast refineries humming for years. When it comes to natural gas, the Lower 48 offers even more promise due to its proximity to the key Midwest market and the growing states’ populations of the West.

The bill contains a number of steps aimed at greasing the skids for increased gas production on lands that are under varying degrees of federal environmental protection.

A major provision calls for creation of the Office of Federal Energy Permit Coordination, an agency that would be under the authority of the executive branch and would assist various federal agencies with the process of granting permits for energy projects on federal land.

There is also a plan under which the Agriculture and Interior departments would designate so-called utility corridors, or tracts of land in the West where pipe and power lines would be built to connect producing regions with their markets.

The Interior Department would also be given the solemn tasks of inventorying energy reserves on federal lands and reviewing regulatory policies covering oil and gas drilling and its effects on privately owned lands.

The Interior Department is actually a prominent player in the Bush energy policy since it is a major landowner in the West and steward of vast tracts of protected wildlife habitat.

That situation is a seeming conflict of interest to some environmentalists despite industry and administration insistence that nature and energy production can co-exist.

One such organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, this week filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of the Rocky Mountain Energy Council.

The RMEC was formed by the Bush administration with the goal of developing what a White House news release termed “a more effective management strategy for energy development and energy policy issues on federal and state public lands in the Rocky Mountains.”

“The responsibility of the Council will be to address and resolve issues affecting the environmentally responsible development of the valuable public energy resources that are needed for the energy security, economic stimulation, and social well-being of the American public,” the release said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said Thursday that the RMEC appears to actually be quite hostile to the environmental community and also barred the media and public from its initial meeting in Denver earlier this month.

Just because the administration is careful to publicly salute the need for environmental protection in energy development, it doesn’t mean that the environmental community and their friends in Congress will take them at their word, and that could mean that next week’s energy debate in the Senate will proceed cautiously with an eye to devilish detail.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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