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House Bill To Weakens Environmental Standards
Yahoo News/AP
By H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer
October 7, 2005

WASHINGTON - A Republican measure to help the oil industry make more gasoline, and perhaps ease prices at the pump, faces a close vote in the House after critics — from the Sierra Club to state and local officials — complained it would lead to more air pollution and could force communities to accept unwanted refineries.

"I think it will be a tight vote," Rep. Joe Barton , R-Texas, said Thursday. Barton drafted the bill in response to the soaring gasoline prices unleashed after hurricanes Katrina and Rita heavily damaged a dozen refineries in the gulf region, cutting off 20 percent of the country's domestic gasoline supply.

Barton says vulnerabilities in the fuel supply system exposed by the hurricanes shows that the country needs to build more refineries, especially away from the Gulf Coast region.

The legislation, scheduled for a House vote Friday before lawmakers depart for a weeklong recess, is aimed at giving industry assurances that lengthy government reviews and new environmental hurdles do not block refinery expansion — and even prompt investors to build a new refinery.

No refineries have been built in the United States since 1976 as the industry has consolidated to fewer, but larger facilities.

The GOP legislation also would limit to six the different blends of gasoline and diesel fuel that refiners would be required to produce, reversing a trend of using so-called "boutique" fuels to satisfy clean air demands. And it would give the federal government greater say in siting a refinery and pipeline. It also calls on the president to designate military bases or other federal property where a refinery might be built.

But opponents, including most Democrats and some moderate Republicans, have accused Barton and GOP leaders of using the hurricane devastation to push through proposals long sought by industry, including some not related to refineries at all.

For example, the bill would give some cities longer to meet federal clean air standards and it would allow not only refineries, but also coal-burning power plants and other industries to expand or change operations without adding new pollution controls even if, in some cases, emissions increase.

It is a change long sought industry groups and the Bush administration, but currently is bogged down in the courts because of lawsuits from a number of states.

"The bill weakens state and federal environmental standards ... and gives a break to wealthy oil companies while doing little or nothing to affect oil prices," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert , R-N.Y., said in a letter Thursday to colleagues.

With prices soaring, "oil companies now have all the profits and incentives they need to build new refineries" without government help, he maintained.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the "anti-environment, anti-consumer" legislation was laden with the same GOP proposals to help oil companies that Congress rejected when it passed a sweeping energy bill just two months ago.

Barton rejected the notion that the bill will lead to a weakening of environmental protection. It will give industry more "certainty" that a refinery project will not be delayed "without lessening any environmental law now on the books," he insisted to reporters Thursday.

"The bill sets in motion a chain of events for lowering gas prices for Americans," he said.

Among the groups trying to kill the bill are the National League of Cities, nine state attorneys general, most environmental organizations and groups representing state officials in charge of implementing federal clean air requirements. They said the bill would hinder their ability to assure clean and healthy air.

Environmentalists also have argued that the limit to six gasoline types could jeopardize the requirement for use of low-sulfur diesel fuel. The low-sulfur diesel regulations have been touted by the Bush administration as one of the Environmental Protection Agency's most significant accomplishments.

A shortage of U.S. refining capacity has been a concern raised by oil industry groups long before Katrina and Rita.

In 1981, the United States had 325 refineries capable of producing 18.6 million barrels a day. Today there are fewer than half that number, producing 16.9 million barrels daily. Still refining capacity has been increasing, though not dramatically, for the last decade. Imports have made up the difference as demand has continued to increase.

The bill number is H.R. 3893. Additional information can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov

Refinory profits are soaring -