WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans introduced an industry-friendly energy bill Monday, calling the nation's energy problems the greatest threat to economic growth. They promised action by summer.
The bill, already sharply criticized by many Democrats, calls for new tax and regulatory incentives for oil and natural gas production, including opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
The legislation also would expand programs to help low-income families cope with energy bills, provide new tax incentives for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and provide a tax break for buying ultra-efficient cars, homes and appliances.
Still, most environmentalists denounced the legislation, and energy-efficiency proponents said it is too heavily focused on production rather than conservation. The Sierra Club called it ''a giveaway for fossil fuel producers.''
While Sen. John Breaux, D-La., joined as a co-sponsor, some Democrats already have promised to filibuster the measure if the provision for oil drilling in the Alaska refuge is not removed.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he hoped an energy package will be voted on by the full Senate sometime this summer, but that no action would be taken before the White House completes its long-term energy package.
Lott, at a news conference unveiling the GOP bill, said ''we're heading for trouble'' without a broad energy plan that promotes production, adding ''it's not enough to encourage conservation.''
He said the country is facing ''an energy crisis'' that, if not addressed, will pose ''the greatest threat the future economic prosperity in this country.''
The bill, crafted by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, would do little to address the most immediate energy concerns -- soaring natural gas prices nationwide and California electricity shortages that threaten to spill over to other western states this summer.
Murkowski acknowledged that the measure is designed to address the long-term problem of growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The bill seeks to reduce such dependence from 56 percent to 50 percent over the next 10 years.
Calling the legislation ''balanced'' between conservation and production, Murkowski rejected criticism that it would primarily benefit already profitable oil companies.
''This isn't a tax bill favoring Big Oil,'' said Murkowski, a close congressional ally of the oil industry. He said the tax benefits are aimed at small independent producers and development of marginal ''stripper'' wells.
Murkowski said the country needs the estimated 11 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil believed to be beneath the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.
And, he insisted, the oil can be developed using current technology without harming the environment. Drilling in the refuge, which is the summer calving grounds for caribou and the season home to other wildlife including millions of migrating birds, has been strongly opposed for years by environmentalists.
New oil production is needed to protect national security, Murkow-ski said.
A number of senators, including Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., have said that they will use every parliamentary tool available including a filibuster, to block legislation including a refuge drilling provision.
In addition to drilling in the Arctic refuge, the legislation also includes provisions to:
-- Provide tax breaks for small oil producers and construction of new refineries.
-- Streamline permitting processes for oil and gas pipelines.
-- Review the adequacy of electricity generation and power transmission grids.
-- Expand research and development of clean coal technology and tax incentives for use of such technology in current coal-burning power plants.
-- Promote research into new-generation nuclear power plants and speed up construction of a nuclear waste facility.
-- Introduce tax incentives for consumers who purchase automobiles that achieve 50 miles per gallon or more, or purchase ultra-fuel efficient homes and appliances.
HEAD:President who set aside Arctic reserve goes public against reopening it
HEAD:GOP energy bill includes incentive for drilling
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former President Carter says he ''inherited the mantle'' two decades ago of protector of an isolated Arctic wildlife refuge and is determined to do whatever he can now to keep oil companies from drilling there.
As President Bush promotes an energy plan that has at its core drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the president who extended its federal care 21 years ago is waging a campaign of his own: to keep the oil rigs out.
''It was set aside not to be ex-ploited ... in order to have a very small amount of oil,'' the former president said Monday in a telephone interview from the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Only hours after Senate Republicans introduced an energy package that includes drilling along the Arctic refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, Carter was on the telephone with reporters to denounce the proposal.
He previously has let his strong feelings about the refuge be known in op-ed newspaper pages and public remarks. He admits he has a passion over the issue, having ''invested so much time'' in it when president.
''I inherited the mantle of protecting ANWR from (President) Eisenhower,'' Carter said in a 20-minute interview. He added that had it been his choice alone in 1980, he would have made the refuge a national park, ensuring its protection from oil and gas drillers.
As it was, President Eisenhower had set aside the 19.5 million-acre area in the northeastern corner of Alaska as a refuge in 1960 but did not specifically prohibit oil development.
In 1980, Congress enacted the Alaska Lands Act and declared a ban on development of the coastal plain refuge's lodes of oil and natural gas without specific congressional approval. Carter signed the bill in one of his last acts as president.
Today, Carter calls it ''a compromise'' that protected the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.
He is dismayed about the push now to try ''to destroy the pristine quality of ANWR in order to have a very small amount of oil which won't be available until 10 years in the future.''
Carter suggested that supporters of drilling have exaggerated the current energy problems to win support for developing the coastal plain.
Two major oil crises struck the U.S. economy in the 1970s -- first in 1973, as shortages caused blackouts and rapid increases in prices for fuel and other commodities; and then in the late 1970s, during Carter's presidency, as major oil exporters reacted to the Iran hostage crisis again to cause gas lines and supply shortages.
''We don't have any such crisis today,'' Carter said, noting that no one has run short of either oil or natural gas although prices have increased markedly.
The only crisis, Carter said, has been with electricity supplies in California, ''where a misguided legislation was put into effect'' deregulating the state's electricity market. He argued that has little to do with oil or with the wildlife refuge in Alaska.
Despite claims by the oil industry that it can develop the refuge without environmental harm, Carter maintains that drilling there, even with today's technology, would ''destroy a precious possession'' that has no equal in North America.
''I've stood in front of the caribou herds,'' Carter said, ''and I've seen the precious and fragile environment out there. It's one of the few remaining places in the Northern Hemisphere where there's such diversity of wildlife.''
''It's no less valuable than Yosemite,'' he said, referring to the national park in California.
Environmentalists said they hope Carter's decision to go public with his opposition will sway sentiment among the people and, more important, among members of Congress, who later this year probably will decide the issue.
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans have said they would not support a proposal to drill in the refuge, but Carter still is worried. He says the outcome will depend on ''how powerfully persuasive the White House'' becomes in trying to sell the proposal.
''I know from experience: ... if a president really wants something to the abandonment of other priorities he can be very persuasive,'' Carter said.
On the Net: Energy Department's outlook from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://gils.doe.gov:1782/cgi-bin/w3vdkhgw?qryPDFaRT8F--;doecrawl-0116 28
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