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Bush Signs Energy Bill in New Mexico


President Bush flies to New Mexico today to sign the energy bill that Congress just passed after more than four years of debate. Much of that bill reads like a wish list of projects for lawmakers to brag about back home, and that is just what it is, according to NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

You can find one member's provision on page 998. It tells the Environmental Protection Agency to study smog in western Michigan. While the study is going on, the bill stops the EPA from enforcing clean air standards there. Western Michigan does have an ozone problem. Pollution from big cities across Lake Michigan blows in and drags western Michigan below EPA standards, even though the area's mostly rural.

Representative FRED UPTON (Republican, Michigan): Some of my counties barely have a four-lane road, don't even have a two-story building, and--you know, for miles and miles.

OVERBY: That's Republican Fred Upton, the local congressman. He wrote the language that appears on page 998. Environmentalists aren't thrilled about any special exemptions from the Clean Air Act. But what's really noteworthy about Upton's provision is that it's out there in plain sight. It's titled Western Michigan Demonstration Project.

Rep. UPTON: I'm one for an open process, and that's why we didn't, quote, "slip it in." And people knew that it was me. I'm proud of this amendment. I did a press release on it.

OVERBY: As many members do when they bring something valuable home from Washington. But in this energy bill, a conspicuous number of provisions are cloaked in vagueness. Anna Aurilio is reading through a list of federal loan guarantees in the bill.

Ms. ANNA AURILIO (US Public Interest Research Group Lobbyist): So there's a loan guaranty for a coal gasification plant used to produce Fischer-Tropsch processed fuel.

OVERBY: Aurilio lobbies on energy issues for the US Public Interest Research Group, a liberal advocacy organization. Fischer-Tropsch is a process for making gasoline and similar products from coal. Senators Richard Lugar and Barack Obama put it in to help coal projects in their home states of Indiana and Illinois. Aurilio sits in her cramped office and continues with the list.

Ms. AURILIO: There is a loan guaranty for a coal plant that co-produces hydrogen located in the upper Great Plains. And then there is a loan guaranty for a coal gasification plant in a deregulated energy generation market. All of these were clearly specific projects that specific members of Congress wanted in there.

OVERBY: And then there's the mysterious petroleum cold cracking provision. Texas Congressman Ralph Hall, a Republican, added it late one night shortly before the final votes. Hall's amendment tells the Energy Department to conduct a study of cold cracking technology. Cracking is the process of breaking down crude oil for gasoline. It usually involves chemical catalysts or hydrogen. Cold cracking would use radioactive materials instead. Keith Ashdown monitored the energy bill for the fiscally conservative watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): It really showed what the congressional Santa Claus can do for you after midnight.

OVERBY: Hall's amendment is one of the cheapest items in the bill, just $250,000. What's remarkable is that cold cracking is such a mystery around Washington. Hall's office has a six-sentence summary. It says that cold cracking has worked in the lab and would reduce both the economic and environmental costs of using oil. But when Hall offered his amendment, other lawmakers didn't know what it was. Hall himself had trouble explaining it. Later on, the House Energy Committee could not provide an explanation to NPR, nor could three leading oil industry lobbying groups--the American Petroleum Institute, Independent Petroleum Association of America and National Petroleum Refining Association; the same for the Nuclear Energy Institute. To Keith Ashdown, at Taxpayers for Common Sense, this is a good example of the new way Congress makes laws.

Mr. ASHDOWN: A hundred-page bill in the '70s was a long piece of legislation. And they've just become longer and longer, mainly because all these little provisions which benefit a certain interest are being put into the bill.

OVERBY: And when the bill is 1,725 pages long, there's little reason not to add one more provision to make one more lawmaker happy. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.