June 26, 2008

Congress Approaches Holiday With No Gas Plan

By Dale Eisman, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jun. 26--WASHINGTON -- With gasoline prices pushing toward $4.25 a gallon throughout much of the country, an uneasy Congress prepared for a summer holiday on Wednesday with no sign that Democrats and Republicans are anywhere near a consensus on what they can do about the problem.

In hastily convened hearings and a string of news conferences on Capitol Hill, the two parties traded barbs over what or who is responsible for energy price spikes and whether finding more oil, or using less, is the key to controlling costs.

Neither side has it exactly right, a few members acknowledged.

"There's been bipartisan neglect on energy," said Rep. John Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican who is Congress' most vocal advocate of more aggressive exploitation of U.S. energy resources, including offshore drilling along the Eastern Seaboard.

Peterson and a group of House Republicans, including Rep. Thelma Drake of Norfolk, on Wednesday kept up the pressure for drilling. The Defense Department's energy costs, a particular concern in her military-heavy district, have more than doubled since 2003, Drake said, even as military consumption of fuel has declined.

"Our national security is endangered," she said.

But Democrats warned that offshore drilling wouldn't produce oil for a decade or more and argued that profiteering oil companies and speculation on petroleum futures markets are the immediate culprits as gas prices rise.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who heads Congress' Joint Economic Committee, said he's for more drilling, too, at least in the western Gulf of Mexico.

"You still can't drill your way out of the problem," he said. "If you don't do conservation, if you don't do alternative energy, and you don't tell the big oil companies they can no longer run energy policy in America, we won't succeed, plain and simple."

Peterson insisted that some offshore oil could be available in as little as five years once Congress and the White House let energy companies go after it.

Prodded by environmentalists, Congress and a series of presidents have imposed a moratorium on most offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts since the 1980s.

Virginia officials signaled last year that they're willing to support exploration to determine the extent of reserves more than 50 miles off the state's shores. No decision about actual production should be made before exploration, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine argues.

The proceeds from leases for offshore oil fields could pump up to $200 million annually into Virginia's treasury, according to one estimate.

Rep. Randy Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican, said Democrats are prone to look at how gas prices have climbed during the presidency of George W. Bush and blame him. His fellow Republicans prefer to focus on dramatic increases since the Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007 and place blame there, he said.

"In reality, it's neither one," Forbes said.

Forbes said he wishes both sides in the debate would pursue a different approach.

He has introduced legislation calling for a "Manhattan Project" that would pour $24 billion into a package of research grants and cash prizes that would be awarded to inventors or firms that come up with energy-saving and environment-conscious new technologies.

Forbes would offer a $250 million prize, for example, to the developer of a plug-in hybrid car that is no more than 10 percent more expensive than a conventional model but can travel at least 70 miles on a gallon of gas.

Forbes would put effective control of the prizes in the hands of a commission of scientists, government officials and a bipartisan group of Congressional appointees. It's critical to keep Congress, with its partisanship and vulnerability to interest group pressures, out of the awards process, he said.

With the emergence of "energy hogs" like China and India, he said, "you can say it makes sense to do more drilling and it makes sense to conserve.... One component is not going to take us where we need to go."

Dale Eisman, (703) 913-9872, [email protected]


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