As the Senate gets ready to begin debate on an omnibus energy bill on Tuesday, a top Republican staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee conceded that the controversial methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) provisions could threaten the energy measure this year.

“There’s absolutely a possibility that we are unable to resolve [House-Senate] conference because we can’t reach an agreement on MTBE,” said Alex Flint, Republican staff director for the Senate panel, during a media briefing Friday sponsored by Energy Daily. But he stopped short of saying MTBE may prevent Congress from sending an energy bill to the White House by Aug. 1, as President Bush has requested.

“I can’t speculate [on] whether we can meet an Aug. 1 schedule or not,” Flint said. But he noted he expects the House and Senate will be in conference on the energy bill by that time. “We have never imposed schedules…We will move forward [on the bill] when we have things worked out.”

The House energy bill, which was passed in late April, would provide liability protection for producers of the gasoline additive MTBE. Both House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are firmly committed to incorporating this provision in the final conference report on the energy bill.

But on the Senate side, the budget resolution now provides a point of order against unfunded mandates on the states, and the Congressional Budget Office has determined that the MTBE safe harbor would meet that standard, Flint said. He noted that it would take 60 votes to waive the point of order, and “I think there’s less than 20” in the Senate.

“Failing to waive that point of order, the [energy] conference report would fall. It would be done” for another year, Flint said.

“I think that is an impossible hurdle to overcome” in the Senate, Flint told reporters. He estimates it would cost $50-75 billion to clean up MTBE contamination nationwide. “[I’d] have a very hard time of delivering any sort of pay-for-it solution in the context of any energy bill.”

He believes every issue, except MTBE, can be resolved in the House-Senate conference. At this point, “I don’t know a solution to the problem.” The White House will be “a or the key player when it comes to resolve MTBE,” Flint said.

The conference on the energy bill “is going to make for some tough negotiations,” according to Flint. “We got a long process before us in conference.” The report that emerges from conference has to be a bipartisan one, with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the ranking member of the Senate energy panel, signing off on it, he said.

Even though Republicans have a majority in the Senate and House, Flint believes a Republican-only conference report would garner less votes on the floor.

Senate is scheduled to begin floor consideration of the energy bill early Tuesday, with the debate lasting up to two weeks, Flint said. He expects senators to offer amendments on the siting authority over the siting of liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities and on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

“I think there are some members who are a little unsettled about the LNG siting provisions. By that, I mean [they] might not want to push it to a vote, but might like to negotiate some changes that we might be able to agree to on both sides on LNG siting,” he said.

“The OCS is clearly something where some members would like to create a mechanism to incentivize states to allow production on the OCS off of their shores…I think Sens. [Pete] Domenici and Bingaman both agree we’d like to see increased production off of the OCS, but we can’t agree on a mechanism that would make it work,” Flint noted.

“I will postulate that’s something [OCS] where there’s going to be a lot of discussion [during] this first week, but I don’t think anybody will pull the trigger on that amendment until the second week.”

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