Energy Wrangling

by Jeremy Alford

The energy bill is finally on the move in Congress ' with a few surprises.

After months of haggling over the finer points, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally told lawmakers it's time to move forward on a compromise with the Senate on this year's energy bill. The negotiations, however, will not proceed as originally planned.

Both chambers passed out dramatically different versions earlier in the year. Traditionally, an agreement would be hammered out in a conference committee, which is a panel of representatives from both the House and Senate. After a final draft is presented, the two chambers would then take a final vote.

But Pelosi has removed that option from the table. Instead, leaders from both parties will meet individually ' likely behind closed doors flanked by special interests ' to draft a compromise measure that will then be introduced as a normal bill to once again navigate the legislative process.

While previous incarnations of Congress' annual energy bill have contained pork projects for Louisiana or other perks, this year's Democratic model focuses on a variety of greener topics, such as renewable sources of electricity, ethanol mandates and fuel efficiency for vehicles.

Practically every member of the Louisiana congressional delegation voted against the bill, arguing the package throws up roadblocks to further domestic oil and gas exploration and production ' a lifeline to billions for the Bayou State.

Pelosi, a Democrat from California who leads the majority, called the legislation a "top priority" recently and argued a conference committee could not be called because Republicans in the Senate were blocking the effort. After countless hours of work that included 10 different committees and dozens of special interests from around the nation, the 2007 energy bill is in some ways going back to the drawing board.

The energy bill this time around is geared to promote energy efficiency and kill the nation's dependency on fossil fuels. The most significant provisions call for increasing fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That's compared to 27.5 miles per gallon today. Another mechanism in the bill would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

It's a drastic change from the energy bills Congress usually cranks out. In fact, there are no outrageous subsidies even identified for the coal, oil and nuclear industries. Rather, there are taxes and fees passed along to pay for many of the new programs. As such, the 2007 energy bill has supporters never thought possible.

"(The) energy bill also contains numerous other important provisions that will help us begin to fight global warming and end our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, a national environmental group. "After years ' if not decades ' spent battling truly reprehensible energy legislation, it is extremely refreshing to be instead focused on just how many progressive policies can be added to an energy bill."

Louisiana's congressional delegation was not as cheerful. Rep. William Jefferson and Sen. Mary Landrieu, both of New Orleans, stayed the party line, though, supporting the Democratic bill. The surprise vote came from fellow Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, who represents the massive district that stretches from Acadiana to Terrebonne-Lafourche. He went against the rank-and-file and joined his Louisiana colleagues in dismissing the bill.

Melancon said he is concerned about the harmful effects of greenhouse gases and global climate changes, and he supports efforts to reverse the trend. The 2007 energy package, however, does nothing to lower energy costs ' it will actually be an increase, Melancon argued.

"I believe we need an energy policy that puts our nation on the path toward being energy self-sufficient, so we are not at the mercy of foreign, sometimes unfriendly, countries like Venezuela and China," he said. "Raising taxes on American businesses will not make us more energy independent, and less domestic energy production means higher energy costs for Louisianians."

Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Kenner Republican, was the only delegation member to miss the vote. As a candidate for governor, Jindal has missed dozens of votes this year, which his office and campaign label as "regrettable" but unavoidable during an election season.

Others from the delegation opposing the energy bill include Republican Reps. Rodney Alexander, Richard Baker, Charles Boustany and James McCrery. GOP Sen. David Vitter was also a no vote.