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Lawmakers Grapple with How to Cut Oil Dependency


The San Francisco spill is minor compared with the disaster in the Black Sea. Two days ago, a tanker broke up in the waters between Russia and Ukraine. It was carrying 1.3 million gallons of oil and much of it went into the water. As many as 30,000 birds have already been killed. Officials are calling it an ecological catastrophe.


Both spills come at a time when the price of oil has been dancing below $100 per barrel. It's a moment when Democrats and Republicans alike talk of greater energy independence for the United States, which does not mean the House and Senate can agree on what to do about it.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: When congressional leaders talk about the unfinished energy bill, often it's in apologetic yet hopeful tones, as if this were some long overdue homework assignment.

Here's Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi responding last week to a reporter who wanted to know when the House might vote on a final version of the energy bill.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): I would like to do it before we leave. I'd like to do it because it's Thanksgiving, over and under and through the woods to grandmother's house we go.

WELNA: Pelosi added that the price of gas at the pump was, quote, "just staggering for America's families." Still, she admitted not knowing if it's possible to get to an energy bill before lawmakers leave at week's end for a Thanksgiving recess.

That prompted this from the number two House Republican, Roy Blunt.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): Hello, it's November, and these prices were 85 cents a gallon lower in January. Part of the reason they're higher is that every proposal the Democrats put on the table reduces energy, doesn't increase energy production in the country.

WELNA: Indeed, many other Republicans are also dismayed by the energy bill the House passed in early August. Instead of opening up new areas for oil drilling, as they'd demanded, the bill proposes vastly expanding renewable energy production with $15 billion in subsidies to be paid for by the big oil companies. It also requires that by the year 2020 at least 15 percent of electricity come from renewable energy such as wind or biofuels. No such requirement appears in the energy bill the Senate passed in June; no tax package was included either. And while the Senate did include tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and small trucks, the House did not.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Oh, man, we've spent more time on this. There is hope for it.

WELNA: Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, likens this energy legislation to an unsolved puzzle.

Sen. DURBIN: It is such a moving target because there are at least four or five important pieces and it's hard to reach a consensus on all of them. People agree on each piece, but when you put them together, it turns out that they end up canceling one another out. You just don't come up with 60 votes.

WELNA: Sixty, of course, is how many votes you need to prevent a Senate filibuster. Republican senators have not even allowed the appointment of a conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers' bills.

Mitch McConnell is the Senate Republicans' leader.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): I think a hundred dollar a barrel of oil is disturbing. I think this bill, however, will do absolutely nothing about that. It's mainly a tax increase, which will drive the cost of gasoline even higher.

WELNA: But that kind of rhetoric has not stopped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from keeping hopes high that this stalemate can be broken.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We're very aware of how important that energy bill is and we're committed to doing something about it. With a little bit of luck, we could complete it prior to the Christmas recess.

WELNA: South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune says he too hopes for an energy bill by Christmas.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): If in fact we can get that done, it's important for this industry, and I believe for our country's interest that we get a renewable fuel standard, an expanded renewable fuel standard put in law.

WELNA: Thune wants to move that renewable fuel standard, which boosts production of ethanol made from corn onto to a farm bill moving through the Senate.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton is pushing her own proposal in this Iowa TV ad.

(Soundbite of ad)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I will create a strategic energy fund that will put $50 billion to work with wind and solar and biofuels that help us move away from our dependence on foreign oil. And where would I get the money? I would take the tax subsidies away from the oil companies.

WELNA: Still, Cambridge Energy Associates chairman Daniel Yergin doubts there's anything lawmakers can propose that could quickly bring down oil prices.

Dr. DANIEL YERGIN (Cambridge Energy Associates): The energy business is basically a long-term industry, so what goes into law now takes effect over several years, not overnight.

WELNA: But that won't necessarily keep an energy bill, or the lack of one, from being a hot issue in next year's campaigns.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: There have been oil shocks before, notably in 1973. You can explore what's changed and what hasn't between then and now at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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