Murkowski measure would open ANWR

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans introduced an industry-friendly energy bill Feb. 26, 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 seasonal 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, Murkowski 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.

* Introduce tax incentives for consumers who purchase automobiles that achieve 50 miles per gallon or more, or purchase ultra-fuel efficient homes and appliances.

03/03/2001 - 8:00pm