Energy Bill May Become Priority Following Terrorist Assaults

While the series of deadly terrorist attacks on the United States last Tuesday will "change the entire agenda of Congress and the federal government" during the fall session, a key legislative analyst doubts that energy legislation will be placed on the back burner as a result.

"I wouldn't make the assumption" that energy will become less of a priority to Congress in the wake of the assaults, said Martin Edwards, director of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) last week. "It may actually become more important since it's both a national security and economic issue," he noted.

"I don't think it [energy] can take a backseat" during this legislative session, he said, adding that issues such as education and Social Security may become less urgent, however.

Much of Congress' regular schedule, including hearings on energy legislation, was disrupted last week, as Capitol Hill leaders met with President Bush and other administration officials to map out a response to the terrorist attacks that crippled much of New York City and parts of Washington D.C. last week. Because its legislative calendar is likely to face further upset, some now believe that Congress may have to stay in session until November or December.

The House of Representatives passed its energy bill in early August, and the Senate is expected to take up its energy legislation during the fall session. Prior to the terrorist assaults last Tuesday, getting a bill through the Senate and reconciling it with the House version this fall was seen as a daunting task. But some, such as INGAA's Edwards, believe that the latest events may bolster Congress' resolve to push through energy legislation.

In a related development, Vice President Dick Cheney said last week that congressional passage of the president's energy initiatives, as well as expanded free trade authority, will have a "great bearing" on the nation's economy this year and beyond.

He stressed the need for a balanced approach toward energy. President Bush "and I do not accept the false choice between more energy and a clean environment. It is possible to do both. This is one of the primary themes of our energy policy that...we're now trying to get passed through the Congress," Cheney told the Southern Governors' Association annual meeting in Lexington, KY. Cheney's remarks came one day before the terrorist attacks.

From a production angle, the president's energy policy calls for "everything from clean-coal technology to alternative energy supplies," he said, adding that it also "includes highly effective new methods that allow much oil [and natural gas] production to go literally unnoticed and habitat to be undisturbed."

He cited the Sabine Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana as an example of production and the environment co-existing. There, Cheney said "more than 100 oil and gas wells operate in complete harmony with land and the wildlife."

Both Cheney and Bush support oil and gas drilling in the coastal region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, but the move is widely opposed by environmentalists and a number of U.S. lawmakers. While the House energy bill supports opening ANWR to drilling, the issue has met a lot of opposition in the Senate.

But Cheney, who wields considerable clout on Capitol Hill, does not intend to back down on the issue. "This kind of balanced approach is essential if we are to meet the country's energy needs down the road," he said. "Every energy step we take toward wiser use of energy and more diverse supplies here at home will make us that much less dependent on oversea suppliers and less vulnerable to supply shocks imposed on us from abroad."

Cheney chaired the Cabinet-level task force that developed the Bush administration's national energy policy, which was released last spring.

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