Energy bill gives Burr power boost
N.C. senator says plan will bring stability to consumers, businesses
Sen. Richard Burr reached two milestones last week.
The first is a task assigned to all new senators from the majority party: Presiding over the Senate, often when there’s nobody else in the chamber but a single speaker on the floor and a TV camera operator from C-SPAN2.
According to Senate leaders, the Winston-Salem Republican logged 100 hours of presiding time by 10 p.m. on June 30 — faster than any senator in the long history of the upper chamber. The previous record was in September. Burr will soon receive a Golden Gavel award.
The other milestone?
Burr was named to the Senate-House conference committee that will soon sit down and hammer out a compromise version of the sweeping energy bill.
That may not bring him an award, but it does give him clout. It also marks him as a Senate player just six months after taking his seat.
Last year, Congress tried but failed to send energy legislation to President Bush. This year, it’s trying again. The House passed an energy bill in April; the Senate passed its version, 85-12, last week.
The $18 billion Senate bill would give tax breaks to oil and gas producers; mandate the use of 8 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline by 2012; require electric utilities to obtain 10 percent of their supplies from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020; and offer tax credits to consumers who buy energy-efficient cars and appliances.
Over Burr’s objection, the Senate bill calls for an inventory of offshore oil and gas resources — a first step, coastal senators fear, to ending a presidential moratorium on drilling off the East and West coasts.
In the Senate, Burr helped kill two proposed amendments to the upper chamber’s bill. One would have set a goal of cutting oil imports 40 percent by 2025. The other would have required companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — contributors to global warming — to 2000 levels by 2010.
The Observer talked with Burr recently about the Senate bill. Here’s an edited transcript:
Q. What’s the likelihood the oil-gas inventory will end up in the compromise? It’s in the Senate version, but not the House version. It was in the (2004) Senate bill. It got knocked out in conference. I am incredibly confident that it will get knocked out in conference again, which means the moratorium is intact.
Q. Does this president favor continuing that moratorium? He has maintained it. That may have more to do with his brother (Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) than with what he believes.
Q. Is global warming a problem? If so, what can be done? If the question is: "Do I believe that we’re putting things into the air that over time have an adverse effect on our environment? And that we should have a policy that begins to turn that around and takes that out?" I’m supportive of that. I’m not supportive of hitting goals that science tells me we can’t do in the time frame or in the volume that the amendments suggested.
Q. So what should be done? You opposed a tough global-warming amendment (from Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman). We’ve incorporated quite a bit in this bill. It’s the best conservation package in the 11 years I’ve been here. We truly do improve energy efficiency more than I ever dreamed. We invest in the new technologies — clean-burning coal, hydrogen, fuel cell. The difficulty is that, even if you put another billion dollars into it, you can’t make technology happen faster than the development of it.
Q. Will the bill make sure we don’t have the kind of power blackout of two summers ago? Absolutely. It’s the move to a total upgrade of our (electric) transmission grid in the United States. That (provision) came from my (separate) bill (that was incorporated into the bigger bill).
Q. What’s this bill going to do about gas prices at the pump? The president was honest when he said this does not have an immediate (effect on gas prices). The biggest benefit of this bill is that it brings predictability to energy policy. When that predictability is there, we will see a much more stable energy market. Since I’m not psychic, I can’t tell you whether a barrel of petroleum levels off at $40 or $45. I know the range economists suggest.
But when you bring predictability to that, you’ve now brought predictability to gasoline pricing at the pump. You’ve brought predictability to the decision of whether we’re going to buy a new car or not — and which one. You’re brought predictability to the trucking company that’s trying to decide, "Are we going to be able to project a profit and, if so, are we going to buy new trucks?" That’s important to North Carolina because of Freightliner and the rest of them.
You’ve brought predictability to employers because, in a global marketplace, energy cost is, in many ways, a determining factor between profitability and loss. And there’s this little thing in North Carolina called US Airways. Predictability is more important to them than oil at $30 a barrel one day and $40 a barrel two weeks later. That’s something they can’t deal with in their pricing structure."
Q. Does this bill make us less dependent on foreign oil? You opposed another amendment — from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — that would have set a goal of cutting oil imports by 40 percent in 20 years. It was unrealistic. I don’t believe in setting goals — even if it’s just (expressing) "the sense of the Senate" — that you can’t reach.
Q. You oppose any oil drilling off the coast of North Carolina. But you support it for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What’s the difference? The difference is people in North Carolina don’t want it and the Alaskans wanted it.
Q. The bill promotes ethanol. That’s good for North Carolina, I’m told, because you can make ethanol out of tobacco. It is good for North Carolina. (But) it’s not unique to tobacco. It could be (made) from the stalk of any vegetation.
Q. Passing an energy bill with such bipartisan support — a major accomplishment? A huge accomplishment. The impact of this is truly a domino effect. You can look backwards and say, "How does it affect the average family?" It’s the price of gas, it’s the price of their heating bill, it’s the security of their job, it’s the competitiveness of their employer, it’s the cost of goods they might buy in a retail store that were brought in on a truck.
Q. And the impact on North Carolina? Huge. You’ve got two of the top five publicly traded utilities, as well as the most electric co-ops and 48 municipal powers. This brings predictability and understanding to energy policy.
Tim Funk: (202) 383-6057; [email protected]
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