Senate Puts Pork Barrel Energy Bill on Hold Until January  
by Dan Bacher
November 27, 2003

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Under pressure from a wide-ranging coalition of conservation groups, the US Senate on November 21 rejected the Bush-backed energy bill that would give billions in subsidies to the oil and gas industry while hurting fish and wildlife.

Hopefully, this defeat for the administration will mark a turning point in stopping the administration's many attacks on the country's environmental laws, including the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

The Senate Leadership announced on Monday, November 21 that it would not attempt a second vote on the Energy Bill until January. On November 21, the Senate voted 58 to 40 to sustain a filibuster and block a final vote on the bill.

Senator John McCain, one of seven Republican Senators who crossed party lines to vote against the bill, accurately described the pork barrel bill as "The No Lobbyist Left Behind Act of 2003.” Thirteen Democrats backed the legislation. The bill includes 23.5 billion in tax breaks, with a total cost of $31 billion over 10 years due to new funding, grants and production initiatives.

Trout Unlimited (TU), Public Citizen and the Wilderness Society were among the many environmental and public interest organizations that organized tens of thousands of people to send faxes and make phone calls to their Senators to block the legislation.

“The bill contains provisions harmful to fish and wildlife conservation efforts across the nation,” said Steve Moyer of Trout Unlimited. “Specifically, Trout Unlimited opposed provisions in the ‘Oil and Gas’ and “Hydropower” sections because of their adverse effects on trout and salmon habitat - and to the interests of fish and wildlife conservationists.”

Moyer criticized the bill for containing oil and gas leasing provisions that could diminish conservation measures on public lands for water resources, wildlife and scenic landscapes. He also blasted the bill for establishing new procedures for the re-licensing of hydropower dams that give dam owners “preferential treatment over all other river stakeholders.”

The organization said the legislation would “make hydropower licensing slower and more complex, cut the public out of the process and undermine the most valuable fish restoring parts of current law.” Moyer urged the Senate to “fix or eliminate the harmful provisions of the bill.”

The bill is particularly applicable to the situation in California, where the negligent operation of hydroelectric facilities by Pacific Gas and Electric on Butte Creek near Chico resulted in the largest fish kill of threatened adult salmon in U.S. history this July and August.

NOAA Fisheries determined that 90 percent of the run - an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 spring run chinook salmon - died because of the company’s poor management of its hydroelectric facilities on Butte Creek. In spite of pleas by conservation organizations such as Friends of Butte Creek to release enough cold water to stop the die-off, PG&E did nothing but making excuses about how the unprecedented die-off was a “natural” occurrence of some kind. The federal government ordered the company to take “immediate action” to stop another similar kill from taking place next year.

This bill, by shifting the balance of power in hydropower re-licensings heavily in favor of dam owners like PG&E, would result in more fish kills like those that took place on Butte Creek this year and last.

Democrats - and some Republicans - were also outraged about a provision in the bill that would protect the Texas producer of MTBE from product liability lawsuits, retroactive to September 5, 2003. Both of California’s Senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, voted against the energy bill. I agree entirely with Boxer's statement that it is "immoral" to shield producers of MTBE from lawsuits regarding groundwater contamination.

MTBE has been a huge issue in the state of California, since the gasoline additive has polluted the groundwater in many areas, along with going into the food chain in Lake Tahoe and other lakes and reservoirs.

The historic defeat is a clear signal that Congress and the voters are sick and tired of the anti-environmental administration policies that resulted in the deaths of over 34,000 salmon on the Klamath River in 2002, increased logging of public land and other environmental disasters.

The bill is completely out of step with the beliefs of the public, regardless of party affiliation, to protect more land for recreational and conservation purposes. For example, a poll conducted by Trout Unlimited by Republican pollster Steven M. Kinney of Public Opinion Strategies shows strong support among voters in the heavily Republican 24th and 25th Congressional Districts in Southern California for increased federal protection of the state’s public land and waters. Over 35 percent of those polled said they hunted and fished on federal lands, while 70 percent hike and camp on California’s public lands.

In both districts, fully 60 percent of respondents said they believe that not enough miles of California’s rivers are protected by the federal government. Over 60 percent of voters surveyed said they would favor protecting 1.6 million acres of public lands in southern California as federal wilderness and additional 241 miles of river as “wild and scenic.”

“The voters surveyed clearly wanted their public lands protected from overdevelopment, especially from damage caused by oil and gas drilling and offroad vehicles, said pollster Steven M. Kinney.

Added David Katz, TU California Director, “What is abundantly clear from this survey is that voters - Republican and Democrat - want more protection for the public lands and rivers they fish, hunt and camp on, and don’t believe these public resources are adequately protected right now.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has vowed to bring the bill back for another vote, so we must keep intense political pressure on our Senators and Representatives to make sure that this abysmal "corporate welfare" bill is defeated again. The bill was defeated by a slim margin of only two votes, so you can bet that the lobbyists for the oil, chemical and nuclear power industry will be oozing their way through the Senate offices in search of more votes for the bill.

What can you do now? Call your Senators and thank those who voted against the bill - and rebuke those voted for it. You can find their votes, as well as their phone numbers, by accessing the following website: http://www.citizen.org/congress/civjus/medmal/articles.cfm?ID=10740

Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com


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