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Energy bill dead - For now

WASHINGTON - For the second consecutive Congress, an enormous bill that
would overhaul the national energy production system has been shelved.

Also for the second straight Congress, differences over the Alaska National
Wildlife Refuge have been the major contributor to the bill's demise. The
bill would open the refuge to oil exploration and drilling, and no
coalition of interests has been able to outvote the opposition to opening
ANWR.

But the opposition will be weaker in the 109th Congress (convening Jan. 3,
2005), where the bill will have to be reintroduced. Republicans, empowered
by Nov. 2 election results that increased their majority in both the Senate
and the House of Representatives, are certain to revive the energy bill -
it is a priority of Republican Pres. George W. Bush. The new bill is likely
to include provisions for opening the refuge to oil development. It is also
likely to pass in the House, as it has previously.

But in the Senate, where the rules permit any member to filibuster a bill
to prevent its coming to a vote, proponents will need a filibuster-proof
majority of 60 votes to open ANWR. Even with its new majority of 55 seats,
the GOP is still well short of that mark, as matters stand now.

In addition, the bill will likely include voluntary provisions for tribes
that want to develop their energy resources. These provisions passed out of
committee and into the larger bill by a single vote in the current 108th
Congress. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Colorado Republican who
officially retires from Congress once the 108th is gaveled into adjournment
(probably on Dec. 7, as plans stand now), acted as lead advocate for the
Indian title of the bill as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian
Affairs. In an interview with Indian Country Today, he predicted that the
incoming committee chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will also be an
advocate for the Indian energy title, possibly even to the extent of
strengthening it.

In any case, the next national energy bill will be offered in a different
energy climate than previous Congresses had to account for. As usual,
worldwide consumption of oil increased in 2003 - but it increased by less
than a third of the increase in coal consumption, according to The Wall
Street Journal. In the past few years, demand for coal to fire the turbines
and engines that generate electricity has skyrocketed in two of the
planet's most-populous nations, China and India. The Western-styled
economic development afforded by accessible electricity in these (and
other) developing nations has had far-reaching effects, among them higher
prices for lumber and other basic materials in Alaska. On top of that,
rising oil prices - an indication that demand for oil has not slackened
despite the resurgence of coal - have meant higher fuel prices everywhere.
But nowhere are they felt as direly as in Alaska, which depends on truck
transport to supply the interior.

In this context, past positions on ANWR may prove less stable than before.

For instance, the environmentalists who have defended ANWR successfully in
the past will have another factor to consider: Coal is not as clean-burning
as oil, and its growing use is sure to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
That would presumably accelerate the global warming trend the Arctic
Council warned against in a Nov. 9 report. McCain has already criticized
the Bush administration for its inaction on climate change issues. But
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, remains unconvinced that greenhouse
gasses cause climate change.

For another instance, proponents of ANWR drilling may be tempted to argue
for a new dimension in ANWR oil - it is at least more environmentally
friendly than coal.

Even the taboo word in national energy planning, conservation, may get a
hearing if John Thune, a Republican newly elected to the Senate from South
Dakota, follows through on a threat to raise it as an issue.

Come what may in the 109th Congress, the new scenario in energy means a
great deal of maneuvering will go down before any national energy bill
becomes law.