The House, winding up one of the most complex and bitter legislative debates of this session, passed a far-reaching energy bill Wednesday aimed at reducing reliance on imported oil by encouraging development of renewable fuels, requiring greater energy efficiency and easing federal regulations for new nuclear power plants.
An intricate compromise that attempts to balance energy conservation and new production, the 1,500-page bill created by nine separate House committees represents the first time in more than a decade that Congress has devised a broad strategy for the nation's energy policies.
The final vote, which came after lawmakers agreed either to delete or blunt several provisions that could have triggered a White House veto, was an overwhelming 381 to 37.
Now virtually assured of being signed by President Bush, the bill moves to a conference with the Senate, which passed its version of the highly technical legislation in February. The eventual compromise is expected to guide energy policies into the 21st Century.
While no one was completely pleased by the result in the House--and while some fights will be reopened during negotiations with the Senate--the strong bipartisan support reflected general satisfaction with the outcome.
Signaling the Administration's approval, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins hailed passage of the bill as a "critical milestone" in the frustrating quest to develop a "comprehensive and balanced" energy strategy aimed at lessening the nation's dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf.
In a series of defeats for environmentalists led by Interior Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez), several provisions that the White House strongly opposed were modified or removed from the bill. Among them was a proposal that would have obliged oil refineries to contribute to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and an amendment establishing stricter safeguards for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
Only one provision considered likely to provoke a veto was left in the bill--an extension of a limited moratorium on offshore drilling to most areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Watkins, in a statement released after the vote, said the Administration would fight to have the moratorium deleted in the conference with the Senate, whose version of the legislation contains no comparable provision.
He said the Administration also opposed an amendment, sponsored by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) and adopted last week, to restrict the right of states to control natural gas production for the purpose of protecting prices.
But Watkins' statement appeared to mark a retreat from a threat to veto the bill over these provisions. Instead, he portrayed the deletion of a host of other proposals opposed by industry as a "major victory for President Bush's leadership in developing a national energy strategy."
Environmentalists suffered their biggest setback earlier in the debate when the House deleted a proposal by Miller that would have made it easier for opponents to stop the operation of a newly constructed nuclear plant by raising safety concerns.
The proposal, which the Administration asserted would sabotage what it hopes will be a revival of the nuclear energy industry, was replaced with language similar to that contained in the Senate bill. It bends to an industry demand for a streamlined one-step licensing process, but it also allows the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to intervene in a plant's start-up if concerns are raised about safety.
But the environmentalists were not entirely displeased with the bill.
They won their biggest victory last year when they succeeded in blocking an effort to open Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling from the bill that was then being debated in the Senate.
Melanie Griffin, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, said that while environmentalists were deeply disappointed with the provisions on nuclear licensing, the bill approved by the House was "good as far as it goes" and a significant improvement over the version passed by the Senate.
She cited the moratorium on offshore oil drilling and the inclusion of a set of "green tax incentives" to promote the development of renewable fuels such as solar and wind power as two of the chief improvements in the House bill.
Even if these provisions are modified in negotiations with the Senate, the legislation that will go to the President's desk this year will touch on--and in some cases radically transform--virtually every major sector of the domestic energy industry over the next 20 years.
Among the far-reaching measures contained in the bill are:
--Standards to make government buildings, new homes and many appliances--from electric motors to lamp bulbs--more energy efficient.
--Reforms to restructure the electric power industry to create a new class of wholesale power suppliers that will be able to transmit electricity across state lines and sell it to local utility companies, with guaranteed access to transmission lines.
--Mandates that cars and other vehicles owned by both government and private fleets run on non-gasoline alternative fuels.
Most of these proposals either were supported or accepted by the Bush Administration, which renewed the energy debate last year when it introduced its own version of a national energy strategy. It became the starting point for the much more conservation-oriented bills that finally emerged from the Senate and House.