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House OKs a mandate on clean energy

Times Staff Writers

Pushing to chart a new national energy policy, House Democrats on Saturday passed legislation that would require the nation’s utilities to generate more electricity from clean-energy sources, such as the wind and the sun.

And in another indicator of the changed political landscape on Capitol Hill, they stripped the oil and gas industries of $16 billion in tax incentives and voted to apply those tax breaks to efforts to spur production of cleaner forms of energy.

The energy measures passed in a final burst of activity before lawmakers were to adjourn for their summer recess this weekend.

Late Saturday, the House also modified the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. The changes, a concession to the White House that was strongly opposed by liberal Democrats, would expand the authority of U.S. spy agencies to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mails. The measure passed 227 to 183 -- with Republicans providing 186 of the “yes” votes.

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The House also approved as much as $255 million in emergency aid for repairs of the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed Wednesday in Minneapolis.

The energy legislation, part of a broad energy package that congressional Democrats hope to send to the president later this year, would mark the first time the federal government had set a national standard for so-called renewables.

If enacted, the measure would mandate that utilities generate about 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Power plants account for about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions -- the leading contributor to global warming -- in the United States.

“We are turning toward the future,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has made legislation to combat global warming a priority. “This beautiful planet is God’s gift to us. We have a moral responsibility to preserve it.”

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The renewable-energy bill passed 241-172, with 26 Republicans joining Democrats on Saturday to back the new standard. The tax package passed 221-189, with nine Republicans joining Democrats.

The California delegation split along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans opposed. Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) did not vote.

The House energy legislation must still be reconciled with an energy bill that passed the Senate in June -- a version without a renewable requirement or the removal of oil industry tax breaks. And the White House had threatened a veto, criticizing the bill Friday as failing to address high energy costs or promote domestic energy production.

But the measure marks a dramatic turn for U.S. energy policy and is a sharp contrast to the energy bill passed in 2005 by the Republican-controlled Congress.

That legislation emphasized greater production of traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil and nuclear power.

The House bill is the counterpart to the Senate’s energy legislation, which passed in June and contains provisions to increase the average-fuel-efficiency requirements for cars for the first time in nearly two decades.

It also includes a wide range of other environmental initiatives, such as promoting the development of more-efficient light bulbs and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

“This is a dramatic first step,” said Marchant Wentworth, a legislative representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The energy bill saves consumers money, creates jobs and makes a down payment on reducing the threat of global warming.”

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With the public increasingly concerned about global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the Democrats have made energy a priority since they assumed the majority on Capitol Hill in January.

The package passed Saturday is less ambitious than Pelosi initially promised -- a reflection of the difficulty of forging consensus on energy policy, an issue that often divides lawmakers by region as much as party.

House Democratic leaders put off decisions until fall on two of the most controversial proposals: capping emissions on power plants and raising vehicle mileage standards.

They still faced a steady barrage of criticism from House Republicans -- and some Democrats -- who complained that the legislation did not support the domestic coal, oil and nuclear industries.

Those industries, the critics argued, offer the best chance of reducing U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

“There is no supply in this bill,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a champion of converting coal to liquid as an alternative to gasoline.

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Solana Beach) accused Democrats of lacking the courage to take on the “extreme wackos who are always going to be against nuclear.”

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the groups opposed to the renewable requirement, said in a letter to lawmakers that the bill could “raise electricity prices for all consumers, result in a wealth transfer among states, and impose new burdens on the reliability of our nation’s electric grid.”

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President Bush has opposed the requirement, even though as Texas governor he signed legislation requiring utilities in his state to produce more power from renewable sources. The White House has said that the standards are “best left to states.”

Proponents of a national standard argued it would meet the national interest of combating global warming and making the country less dependent on oil from the volatile Middle East.

It will “save consumers money, stimulate our economy and strengthen our national security,” said Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the leading sponsor of the renewable standard.

Currently, about 3% of the nation’s energy comes from renewable sources, excluding hydropower. Most energy is generated using coal, nuclear power or natural gas.

About 11% of California’s energy is from renewables. For the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, it’s 9%; Southern California Edison generated 16.7% of its power from renewables last year.

Across the country, local efforts are underway to increase the use of renewable sources. About two dozen states require utilities to invest in green power. California has mandated that utilities generate 20% of power from renewable sources by 2010 and has set of a goal of 33% by 2020.

The House bill passed Saturday would preserve the authority of the states to set higher standards.

And in a nod to complaints from many Southern states, where utilities are particularly dependent on fossil fuels, the measure’s authors agreed to allow utilities to reach the standards in part by making their power plants more efficient.

The energy package approved Saturday also contained a wide range of other measures.

They include a $6-billion bond program to aid state and local governments in financing “green” projects. Of that, California could get $720 million.

(Republicans have derided the bond fund as a way to dispense “green pork,” saying it could be used to replace police cars in Beverly Hills with Lexus hybrids.)

The bill would require that light bulbs sold by 2020 be three times more efficient than today’s incandescent bulbs.

It would also promote the development of energy from ocean waves.

It would authorize $1.7 million for public transit agencies to lower fares or expand service to entice commuters out of their cars, and it would increase federal support for purchase of buses powered by cleaner fuels.

It would close the “Hummer tax loophole,” a quirk in the tax code that critics say has given businesses tax incentives to buy the largest gas-gulping SUVs. And it would authorize a “carbon audit” of the tax code, a study to find ways to use the tax code to reduce emissions.

noam.levey@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Comparing energy bills

The legislation passed by the House on Saturday and by the Senate in June will have to be merged. Here are some differences:

Taxes: The House calls for

$16 billion in new taxes on oil companies over 10 years by removing several of the industry’s tax breaks. The Senate bill has no tax provisions.

Renewable energy: The House calls for incentives to build biomass factories and for research into cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel. The Senate has similar provisions. The House requires electric utilities to produce 15% of electricity from renewable

energy sources. The Senate has no such requirement.

Automobile fuel economy:

The House bill has nothing on fuel economy. The Senate bill

increases the requirement to

35 mpg by 2020 for cars, SUVs and small trucks, about a 40% increase.

Hybrid cars: The House provides tax breaks, subsidies for research into better batteries for plug-in hybrid cars, and up to $4,000 of tax credit for buying such cars. The Senate provides loan guarantees and other

assistance for advanced diesel and hybrid battery technology.

Source: Associated Press


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