Polluter-Friendly Energy

It seems fitting that an organization called The Annapolis Center--identified by the Wall Street Journal as a polluter front group--will give an award next week to Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton appears to be working diligently to earn their accolades as he tries to shepherd energy legislation through the House of Representatives this week.

No matter how Barton and his colleagues try to "spin" the product of their committee deliberations,  the House energy legislation fails one of the key "objectives" set forth by President Bush in his April 16 radio address: "The energy bill must encourage more production at home in environmentally sensitive ways." [emphasis added]

Indeed, if the legislation became law in its current form, it would prolong smog problems in much of the nation, shift the burden of cleaning up poisoned water supplies from oil companies to cash-strapped public agencies, and even threaten environmental damage from some forms of renewable energy. These are on top of the well-publicized provisions that would permit big oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a few months worth of oil that wouldn't reach consumers for a decade.

Itemizing the anti-environmental provisions of the House energy bill is a mind-numbing exercise: new loopholes that could reduce gas mileage requirements; weaker protections for coastal communities; tax breaks to promote more coal burning.  And that's just the beginning. But here are several glaring examples that illustrate the potential for environmental harm.

Dirty Water

The energy bill would shield major oil companies from federal and state product liability lawsuits for the widespread contamination of the nation's drinking water supplies with the gasoline additive MTBE. This chemical leaks out of underground gasoline storage tanks and from gasoline spills, dissolves and spreads readily in groundwater, does not degrade easily and is difficult and expensive to remove. 

At least 29 states have reported MTBE contamination, according to Environmental Working Group. The American Water Works Association, representing 4,700 U.S. water systems, estimates nationwide MTBE cleanup and water replacement costs at $29 billion. Under the House energy bill, the public would be stuck with the cost.

As has been widely noted, the biggest defenders of MTBE--and the proposed legal shield--are Barton and Rep. Tom DeLay, both recipients of MTBE cash.

The bill also would give MTBE makers (small companies like ExxonMobil) $1.75 billion for transition costs.  It would also allow the White House to overturn a suggested ban on the chemical's use. No wonder Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.,  called the MTBE provisions "a direct assault on the nation's safe drinking water supply."

If that's not enough potential damage to the water, the bill also would exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act a process called hydraulic fracturing, in which chemicals are pumped into coal beds in order to coax out methane gas. Many fear this process could harm groundwater. One prominent company that uses hydraulic fracturing: Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's old firm.

Dirty-Air Dominoes

An industry-backed provision drafted by Barton would weaken the Clean Air Act and threaten to prolong smog problems in much of the nation.  Under current law, states must devise air quality improvement plans which demonstrate they will meet smog standards by a set deadline (in most big-population areas, the deadline is 2010 under the 8-hour smog standard which went into effect last year). 

The dirty-air provision would say that if an area is affected by pollution coming from somewhere--and virtually every state in the eastern half of the country falls in this category--it doesn't have to meet the deadlines or adopt stricter local pollution controls until the "upwind" area does. This creates the potential for a dirty-air domino effect, as each state blames another for its pollution problem.  

For example, Ohio claims it can't meet the standards due to pollution from Indiana. The dirty-air amendment would absolve Ohio from having to make further cleanup--thus passing on the dirty-air problem to states downwind, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

Barton, by the way, has not even bothered to explain why this bad-air plan is in the energy bill (since it doesn't appear to involve energy production).  The answer is simple: The committee chairman gets what he wants--in this case, a delay for his Dallas-Fort Worth district.

Damming Harm

Even when promoting renewable energy--and the bill does little enough of this, by the way, as most of the $8 billion in tax subsidies would go for oil, gas and coal production--the House energy bill threatens environmental harm.

That's because the bill includes a provision that would give new advantages to power companies that own dams. It would give the companies a procedural edge when seeking licenses for hydropower--and would undermine the ability of natural resource agencies to protect fish and wildlife. 

A separate section of the bill would put unprecedented new limits on the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal review of the environmental aspects of major energy projects. Under the bill, federal agencies would not be required to identify or analyze the environmental effects of alternative locations or actions to proposed renewable energy projects.

The Natural Resources Defense Council notes this could create a bad precedent that could be used later to promote even more environmentally destructive projects. Developers could use this precedent to lobby in the future, for example, for similar exemptions for gas, oil, coal or nuclear energy projects.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., points out that even alternative energy projects could have negative effects and would benefit from a review of alternatives--for example, the number and type of wind turbines (since some wind projects have become virtual meat grinders for birds and bats). 

"This is a major, major change in NEPA," said Inslee. "I don't think it is wise."

As in the other energy controversies, he's in the minority--so far.

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