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House energy bill will foul air

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Posted on Thu, Oct. 06, 2005
House energy bill aims for relief but would foul air, critics charge

By Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post

WASHINGTON - A House bill ostensibly aimed at easing the nation's energy crisis would dramatically weaken pollution laws by relaxing environmental standards on both oil refineries and aging power plants, several clean-air experts say.

The GOP's Gasoline for America's Security (GAS) Act -- which is expected to pass in the House on Friday -- would ease rules for oil refineries, instruct the president to designate new refinery sites on at least three retired military bases and relax air-pollution controls on thousands of industrial facilities across the country.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton, R-Texas, who wrote the bill in response to rising gas prices and the damage recent hurricanes have wrought on Gulf Coast refineries, said the measures are essential to expanding the nation's energy production.

``We cannot stop hurricanes, but we can mitigate some of these adverse impacts on our energy infrastructure and our economy that hurricanes can have,'' Barton said last week before his panel approved the bill on a party-line voice vote. ``We need to tackle this problem for one simple reason: Our country needs more oil refineries because the people who work for a living need gasoline to get to work.''

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups have blasted the measure, saying it will do little to lower the cost of gas while taking a serious toll on public health. And while refineries and power plants have praised the bill, some industry officials said they were pushing for it because Barton's staff asked them to.

``Our job in cleaning up the air is daunting enough,'' said William Becker, who represents state and local air authorities in Washington state. The bill, he added, ``is so over the top, it's really inexcusable. It is the most blatant attack on state and local environmental authority that I've ever seen.''

The bill would speed the approval of refinery permits by transferring legal challenges from state and local courts to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. It also creates a ``regulatory insurance'' program that allows a refinery to appeal to the government for compensation if operations are stalled by unforeseen regulation or litigation. The bill calls for the president to identify new refinery sites on federal land, possibly including wildlife refuges and national forests.

Some of the bill's biggest beneficiaries said they welcome less regulation but cannot say whether it would translate into many new refineries. The United States has not built a new refinery since 1976, and in a series of memos in the 1990s major energy companies warned they needed to reduce the number of refineries in order to boost profits.

``I don't think you can honestly say there's a shortage of capacity, because there is worldwide capacity,'' said Edward Murphy, group director for refining and marketing at the American Petroleum Institute. ``We did not go running up and say, `Mr. Barton, will you please do this?' We are supportive of it.''

Barton also added to the bill two provisions to revamp ``new source review,'' a program dating back to the late 1970s that requires utilities and other industrial sources to install new pollution controls when they upgrade plants. That has earned him plaudits from industry groups like the Edison Electric Institute, whose members generate more than half of the nation's electricity.

Both power plant and oil refinery officials said they had begun lobbying for the bill's passage at the request of Barton's aides. ``They've asked us if we're supportive of the bill, we should indicate that we are,'' Murphy said.

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