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Refinery bill guts clean air pollution standards

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Posted on Sat, Oct. 08, 2005
Refinery bill passes on close vote

By Maria Recio and Scott Streater

Star-Telegram Washington Bureau; Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The House floor erupted into a partisan slugfest Friday as energy legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, was narrowly approved after some aggressive arm-twisting by GOP leaders.

The bill, designed to make it easier to build refineries, is the House's response to skyrocketing gasoline prices after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita severely damaged facilities along the Gulf Coast, creating fuel shortages.

But Barton's Gasoline for America's Security Act includes provisions that could weaken clean-air regulations. Among them: a proposal that would allow the government to push back deadlines to comply with federal ozone standards in areas like Dallas-Fort Worth that are affected by pollution from other cities and states.

These provisions sparked fierce opposition from clean-air advocates and Democrats, who accused Barton and others of taking advantage of the hurricanes to try to gut laws protecting human health and the environment.

The bill was losing as the scheduled five-minute vote was set to end. So Republican leaders left the vote open for 46 minutes while House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, worked to persuade Republicans who voted against the legislation to switch.

To Democratic cries of "shame, shame, shame," the bill squeaked by 212-210.

It now goes to the Senate, where experts say its future is uncertain.

Barton defended the legislation, saying it will help eliminate fuel shortages created by the storms.

"We use 21 million barrels of oil a day and only have the refinery capacity for 16 million on a good day," he said. "And after Katrina and Rita, we haven't had many good days."

President Bush and industry leaders praised the bill's passage. "I commend the House for passing legislation that would increase our refining capacity and help address the cost of gasoline, diesel fuels and jet fuels," he said in a statement.

Industry leaders said Katrina and Rita shined a spotlight on the nation's dwindling fuel reserves, underscoring the need for legislation streamlining the process to build new refineries.

No refinery has been built in the United States since 1976.

"We believe that passage of this bill ... marks another stage of progress in America's growing realization that improvements in the nation's energy infrastructure and increased supplies of domestically produced gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and home heating oil are a crucial element in maintaining the nation's global economic leadership and national security," said Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

Environmentalists sharply disagreed, arguing that the bill won't encourage new refineries.

"The Bush administration and its cronies in Congress are shamelessly exploiting the hurricanes to ram through legislation that only benefits polluters," said Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

Three Democratic members, including Gene Green of Houston and Henry Cuellar of Laredo, had voted for the bill but switched their ballots to no as it became clear that the vote had become a partisan struggle.

Green, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Barton, had supported the bill after Barton removed a provision that would have severely limited a federal rule requiring industry to install modern pollution controls when altering plant operations in a way that increases overall emissions.

Thirteen Republicans voted against the bill, which passed without any Democratic votes.

The bill's rocky passage underscored the House Republican leadership's efforts to regroup after DeLay, indicted in Texas last week and again this week for election law violations, was forced to step aside as leader.

However, DeLay was performing his old role of enforcer, prompting congressional veteran Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., to quip, "I'm not sure the post-DeLay era has arrived yet."

Democrats, emboldened by the Republican disarray, went on the attack.

"What you saw on the House floor this afternoon was a shameless display of the Republican culture of corruption, as it exists in the House of Representatives," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.


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