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Senate Approves Bill to Revamp U.S. Energy Policy Away From Oil

By Richard Simon

The Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would revamp the nation’s energy policy, paving the way for talks with the House on one of President Bush’s top domestic priorities.

The bill is a mix of relatively modest steps geared more toward promoting conservation and the use of alternative power sources. The House bill, taking its cue from Bush, is tilted more toward production.

Left out of the Senate bill were two high-profile items -- oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sought by Bush and tougher vehicle miles-per-gallon standards sought by environmentalists. Those defeats reflect the difficulty of passing sweeping legislation in a narrowly divided Congress, and many were disappointed by the final form of the Senate legislation.

Critics say it falls short of the goal of substantially reducing U.S. dependence on oil, terming it a step in the right direction but not a leap. But after six weeks of often-acrimonious debate, the Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly, 88-11.

The bill is packed with a wide range of measures. These include a federal loan guarantee to spur construction of a $20 billion, 2,100-mile pipeline to carry Alaskan natural gas to the lower 48 states and a requirement that utilities generate more electricity from alternative sources, such as solar and wind power. It offers close to $15 billion in tax incentives, roughly evenly divided between conservation and production measures.

It extends a cap on the nuclear industry’s liability in accidents, a provision designed to remove an obstacle to expansion of nuclear power. It sets new energy efficiency standards for traffic lights. And, it allows states to let solo drivers of vehicles powered by alterative fuels to use carpool lanes.

The Senate vote came more than a year after rolling power blackouts in California and energy price hikes throughout the country propelled energy policy to the top of the Washington agenda. More recently, political instability in the Middle East has underscored the issue’s importance.

Bush, an ex-oilman, unveiled a national energy plan last May that called for expanding nuclear power, spending $2 billion for research on “clean coal” technologies and opening more federal lands to oil and gas exploration, including parts of the Arctic refuge. The plan also included some environmentally friendly measures, such as tax incentives for residential solar power and fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Most of these measures are in the House bill passed in August.

Bush said Thursday that he looked forward to working with House and Senate negotiators to produce a compromise bill. “It is imperative that America increase its energy independence,” he said.

The administration has said the Senate bill does too little to promote domestic production.

Officials at the Independent Petroleum Association of America echoed that complaint, saying the measure falls “far short” of the domestic energy production incentives in the House bill. But the group praised the Senate bill for including tax credits for small, independent power producers.

Environmental and consumer groups, adamantly opposed to the House bill, had a range of criticisms about the Senate version. They charged it would do little to promote cleaner fuels or reduce global warming.