An Inexhaustible Energy Source: Heated Words. But Can It Be Tapped?

Posted on June 27, 2008

Fourth of July fireworks came early on Capitol Hill. With angry constituents waiting for them back home, lawmakers clashed fiercely on Thursday over how to address high gasoline and oil prices. But with all sides recognizing that there is virtually nothing Congress can do to lower fuel prices any time soon, Democrats and Republicans focused as much on finger-pointing as on policy making. In the House, where Democrats held a series of four votes on energy policies before a weeklong Independence Day recess, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, declared, “After today’s vote, the G.O.P. now officially stands for the Gas and Oil Party.” In the Senate, where Republicans introduced a bill called the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said: “Most Democrats still insist on trying to repeal the law of supply and demand. It’s a new economic theory. You might call it Obamanomics.” On both sides of the Capitol, lawmakers were dreading the prospect of a week at home with constituents sure to harangue them about Washington’s inability to lower gas prices. And that led to an escalation of the battle over energy policy that has Republicans emphasizing what they say is the need for an expansion in domestic oil drilling and Democrats complaining that oil companies are not using millions of acres of federal lands that have already been approved for energy exploration. In the House, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, angrily adjourned a hearing after he was ambushed by Republicans with an amendment to allow drilling on the outer continental shelf off both coasts. Republicans said they were convinced that Mr. Obey would not hold a hearing on the budget for the Interior Department, which has authority over leases for oil and gas exploration on federal lands. So they threatened to take over a session on the labor, health and education budgets with a raft of amendments, including one by Representative Jerry Lewis, Republican of California, on oil drilling. Mr. Obey was furious and said Republicans were responsible for decades of failed energy policy. “This is a con job,” he said. “It’s a diversion. These guys ought to be given a Mandrake the Magician permanent title, for pretending that this has anything to do with solving gas prices today.” Explaining his decision to call off the hearing, he said: “We can spend our time on real things or we can spend it in a playpen with Jerry Lewis. The latter does not interest me.” The Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, accused Mr. Obey and Democrats of cowering from a debate over Republican energy proposals. “Today’s display is yet another example of Democratic leaders ducking a real debate on common sense energy reforms to help increase American-made energy and help lower gas prices,” he said in a statement. House Democrats had hoped to use the last day before the Fourth of July break to portray themselves as taking action on gasoline prices. But their series of votes had mixed results. A bill that Democrats had hailed as a response to Republican calls for expanding domestic oil and natural gas exploration failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for passage on an expedited basis, with 223 voting in favor and 195 voting against. The “use it or lose it” bill would have required energy companies to make use of existing leases for exploration on federal land or face a threat of losing the leases or paying fines that would increase over time. Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, has likened the bill to the rule he says he has set for his three children at dinner time. “My middle one loves chocolate,” he said. “You don’t get your dessert until you finish everything on your plate.” Republicans, however, derided the legislation as a symbolic and empty gesture because under existing law the leases on federal land expire after 10 years if unused. Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, suggested that perhaps Americans should be told about other things they must use or lose, including their right to free speech. “Maybe a brain,” he added. “You can use it or become a member of Congress.” In a rather dramatic show of force, 22 Senate Republicans attended a news conference in a grassy park outside the Senate office buildings to trumpet the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008. Most of them did not get a chance to speak, underscoring their dedication to the issue, since most senators do not relish playing a backdrop role. The bill calls for vastly expanding off-shore energy exploration, and for lifting a ban on the development of oil shale, a rock found in several Western states that can be converted to liquid oil when exposed to extremely high heat. The bill also calls for federal subsidies of research and development for advanced batteries to encourage the development of electric cars and trucks, and it seeks to tighten oversight of commodity futures trading and markets. None of the proposals were new, but the Republicans said they were reaching out a hand to Democrats by not including a provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Democrats oppose. “When we say, ‘deep shore exploration,’ ” Mr. Alexander said, “they say ‘no we can’t.’ When we say ‘oil shale development,’ they say ‘no we can’t.’ When we say ‘more nuclear power to plug in electric cars and trucks,’ they say ‘no we can’t.’ We want to make it easier for them to say, ‘yes we can,’ so we can get a result that will lower gas prices. The American people don’t want us to be up here talking trash. They would like us to be up here, getting results.”