Congressional success for Bush’s energy plan, but defeat over drinking water standards

Congress has backed two controversial elements of President Bush’s energy plan, to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and not to subject petrol-guzzling Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) to greater fuel efficiency, but has rejected a proposed relaxing of strict standards on arsenic in drinking water.

However, the victory of the passage of two key parts of Bush’s much-criticised energy plan (see related story) through the House of Representatives, does not ensure their application, as the proposals now move to the Democrat-controlled Senate, probably in September.

In the early hours of 2 August, the House passed the proposal to open “a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing and production in an environmentally responsible manner” (see related story) by 240 to 189. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham referred to the passage of the bill as “a tremendous victory for America, for the economy and for the environment”, the latter referring to funds from expected lease revenues being directed to a conservation and a renewable energy fund. The US Government estimates that the refuge could produce up to 600,000 barrels of oil a day, as much as the US now buys from Iraq, and will help to ensure that the nation will be less dependent on “unfriendly foreign powers”. The US currently imports about 56% of its petroleum.

The refuge, which provoked comments from Alaska Republican Don Young as an area which “was supposed to be drilled, [and] explored for the American people” and from Florida Republican Cliff Stearns as “a frozen desert with few signs of life” will, however be vigorously defended in the Senate, some have promised. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator Joseph Lieberman said they would “filibuster any effort to drill in the refuge” and vowed that the measure “will never pass the Senate”.

In a further blow to environmentalists the House rejected an amendment that would have forced Detroit to improve the fuel efficiency of SUVs, minivans and light trucks from the current 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) to 27.5 mpg by 2007 by a wide margin. Instead, Congressmen voted to reduce the vehicles petrol use by only five billion gallons between 2004 and 2010, which Democrats and environmentalists claim would increase the fuel efficiency of light trucks by less than one mile per gallon.

The Republican Deputy Sherwood Boehlert, who sponsored the provision to increase fuel efficiency, said that raising current mileage standards would save more oil than could be drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “There’s just no persuasive argument against raising (fuel) standards. It’s the simplest, most basic conservation step available to us,” he said. However, those voting against the proposal said that higher fuel requirements would force manufacturers to build lighter, unsafe vehicles.

Earlier in the week, however, 19 Republicans joined forces with 199 Democrats to defeat their president 218 to 189 over his planned reversal (see related story) of the pending stricter arsenic standard for drinking water introduced in the Clinton Administration’s final days (see related story).

The White House criticised the vote, saying it would undermine a review now under way, while Republican Doug Bereuter attacked criticism of the suspended standard as “heated rhetoric, wild exaggerations and sound-bite politics”. However, the proponent of the measure, Democrat David E. Bonior, said Clinton’s bill would “establish a higher standard for America’s drinking water, giving American families both peace of mind and healthier lives”.

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