Senate Democrats offer sweeping energy bill

WASHINGTON — Debate started Monday on an energy bill that promotes U.S.-produced renewable fuels over foreign oil, sets standards to boost gasoline mileage on cars and aims to criminalize price gouging at the pump.

For Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid said the bill could be a vehicle to cement the state’s standing as a leading producer of energy from plentiful geothermal and solar sources.

“If you look around Nevada, we are surrounded by energy every day and energy is being wasted,” Reid said. “I see Nevada as a leader in energy.”

Amendments could boost production of alternative fuels by extending long-term tax credits for companies that build generating plants, Reid said.

“We need a multiyear extension. Anything less than five years would not be good,” Reid said. The bill represents Democrats’ first stamp on energy policy since retaking the Senate majority in November.

Arguing that the country cannot produce its way out of its energy crisis through more oil and natural gas drilling, Democrats will tout renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“After 6 1/2 years of the Bush presidency, our bill puts the common good ahead of corporate greed,” Reid, the Senate Majority leader, said in a speech previewing the debate.

The bill would:

• Increase consumption of biofuels, largely corn-based ethanol, from 8.6 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. By comparison, Americans consume 240 billion gallons of oil in a year.

• Increase fuel efficiency standards for cars and sport utility vehicles to an average 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The so-called “corporate average fuel economy” would be increased by 4 percent annually after that.

• Direct the Secretary of State to form “strategic energy partnerships” with other major energy producing and consuming nations.

• Encourage new technologies that capture greenhouse gases emitted from power plants and inject them underground.

Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, said investors now qualify for a tax credit of 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour of energy generated by renewables, but that is slated to expire Dec. 31, 2008.

The Silver State has 31 geothermal projects, both operating and in development at potential sites.

Gawell said Nevada, the second largest producer of geothermal energy behind California, is currently generating about 1,000 megawatts of power, but could “potentially double that.”

In a conference call organized by Reid on Monday, officials in Nevada discussed their uses of renewable energy.

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, said 70 percent of energy consumed by the new Springs Preserve is solar generated.

Capt. Scott Ryder, commanding officer of the Fallon Naval Air Station, said the Navy recently signed a contract to build a 30-megawatt geothermal plant on the southern edge of the sprawling base.

The White House has threatened to veto proposals that would, for the first time, require the Federal Trade Commission to go after oil companies found to have gouged consumers.

But key senators say the provision is one of the most significant in the package.

“It is important that consumers have protection on the books,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and lead author of the anti-price gouging measure. “The only thing that needs to be vetoed is the notion that oil companies should go unchecked.”

With energy a popular issue in Congress, lawmakers from various regions of the country have already floated dozens of amendments as they seek to improve or modify the base bill.

Amendments are piling up “like bunnies in the spring,” said Bill Wicker, an aide for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is lead author of many of the energy bill’s titles.

Key amendments would address concerns about OPEC, create a national renewable mandate on the electricity sector, boost energy efficiency, promote liquid coal as a motor fuel and ease the automobile industry’s concerns about the fuel efficiency requirement.

The goal is to spend the next two weeks debating and modifying the bill while keeping its overall purpose of lessening the nation’s dependence on foreign oil intact.

“This bill moves us much further down the road towards making our country more energy self-reliant,” Wicker said. There’s “a tremendous hunger outside of Washington” for new energy policies.

“They really would like to see Congress show some leadership,” Wicker said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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