WASHINGTON (AP) – A national energy plan that would send billions of dollars in tax subsidies to energy companies passed the House on Thursday despite criticism from many lawmakers that it would do nothing to dampen high prices or lessen dependence on Middle East oil.

Within hours, the Senate began debating the legislation, with plans to vote on it today.

Supporters said the legislation would establish a framework for developing a wider mix of energy sources in coming years, including wind turbines, lower-pollution coal plants and new nuclear reactors.

Lawmakers avoided a certain fight in the Senate by leaving out one of President Bush’s top energy goals: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. House Republicans promised to pursue that issue separately.

The White House said Bush, who had challenged Congress to end four years of stalemate over energy legislation, looked forward to signing the legislation. The president has acknowledged the measure will have little impact on oil or gasoline prices.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the legislation would address root causes of high energy prices, but “we didn’t get into this overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

The bill passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 275-156.

“This bill is going to go through lickety-split,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., though he denounced it as a collection of giveaways to cash-rich energy companies that would fail to curb the nation’s thirst for imported oil.

Seventy-five Democrats joined Republicans in moving the 1,725-page legislation through the House.

“It is not a perfect bill,” said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the top House Democrat involved in crafting the legislation. “But it is a solid beginning to developing an energy strategy for the 21st century.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who chaired the House-Senate conference that crafted the final legislation, called it a bill “for America’s future.”

Sponsors said it would improve the nation’s electricity grid and foster energy conservation as well as production. In a move widely awaited in the Farm Belt, it also calls for doubling the use of corn-produced ethanol in gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012.

And it would extend daylight saving time by a month – an extra three weeks in the spring and another week in the fall – to save energy.

The product of weeks of negotiations that meshed widely different versions approved by the House and Senate earlier this year, the legislation would provide $14.5 billion in energy tax breaks, including $2.6 billion for oil and gas industries.

“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.

The bill also would direct loan guarantees and other subsidies to encourage construction of new nuclear power plants and develop carbon-capturing and other technologies to assure continued use of coal to produce electricity.

About $1.3 billion in tax breaks is earmarked for conservation and efficiency programs, including credits for buying hybrid gas-electric cars and energy efficiency improvements in homes.

“While it makes some progress on energy efficiency it ducks the nation’s most important energy challenges,” said Bill Prindle, deputy director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a private advocacy group. The group estimated the bill’s provisions would lead to little oil savings and – largely because of new efficiency standards for commercial appliances – reduce electricity by about 2 percent by 2020.

Among other major provisions in the legislation:

– Subsidies and tax breaks for wind, geothermal and solar industries and for technology aimed at making coal more environmentally friendly.

– New efficiency standards for commercial appliances from air conditioners to refrigerators.

– A requirement for utilities to meet federal reliability standards for the electric transmission grid, in hopes of avoiding 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 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.

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On the Net:

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: http://energy.senate.gov/public/

House Energy and Commerce Committee: http://energycommerce.house.gov/

AP-ES-07-28-05 2040EDT


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