(CNSNews.com) - Environmental and consumer groups said Wednesday they would rather see members of Congress leave Washington without passing an energy bill than striking a deal on the one currently before the joint House-Senate conference committee.
Republicans and Democrats agree time is running out to resolve their differences. The original deadline to complete work on the legislation was more than a week ago and unless action is taken soon, committee spokesmen said, the likelihood of a bill passing this year is remote.
That would be just fine for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Sierra Club and Consumers Union. The three organizations were joined by U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) Wednesday on Capitol Hill to highlight their problems with the legislation.
"The conference is not finished yet, but so far we have done little if anything to secure environmentally sound and affordable energy to the United States, now or in the future," Markey said. "It doesn't mean there cannot be a moment in the next week where we could negotiate on these issues. My hope is that we will, but the likelihood is very small."
Since the conference members were appointed earlier this year, he said the committee has made little progress on the major issues being debated. For Republicans, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains a primary goal, while Democrats are pushing for better fuel efficiency in vehicles and stricter climate-control laws.
Even though conference members still disagree on some language in the bill, a Republican spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said neither side is ready to give up. Spokesman Dave Woodruff said work on an Iraq war resolution has simply slowed down the process.
"The last thing we can afford is inaction," he said. "A lot of the different provisions will take years to put into place. But it's important that we send a message to the world that the United States is moving closer toward energy independence."
Some of the smaller provisions already agreed on by conference members are troublesome, said Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club.
"America doesn't need the kind of energy policy that Congress is now considering," she said. "Congress had the opportunity to pass an energy bill that would decrease our reliance on oil. Instead, what they have agreed to in the conference is a policy that will actually increase our consumption of oil."
Republicans have defended the progress made so far on the bill, such as agreements on energy efficiency, pipeline safety, nuclear power provisions and clean coal standards. The environmental and consumer groups said if Democrats compromise on other issues, such as drilling in ANWR and lax fuel-efficiency requirements, the bill would be terrible.
"I urge Congress to abandon efforts to pass energy legislation this year and go back to the drawing board and get things right next year," Consumers Union policy analyst Adam Goldberg said. "Passing energy legislation for the sake of saying we passed energy legislation is a waste of an opportunity to actually do something about the nation's energy problems."
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group used the occasion to release a report that calls for reducing U.S. reliance on oil, setting a minimum fuel-efficiency standard of 35 miles per gallon and giving the Federal Trade Commission greater power to oversee energy markets.
Bill Wicker, a Democrat spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the committee appreciated the views expressed in the report. He warned, however, that the conference committee might not pack up as the groups suggested.
"Clearly, we are heading into the final stretches of the energy conference," he said in a statement last week. "Whether or not we reach the finish line depends largely on how some major issues shake out. To a great extent, the groundwork has been laid for a successful conclusion of this conference; now we'll wait to see if the dominos fall into place."
It is not just environmental and consumer groups that would like to see the conference end without resolution to the energy bill. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that promotes free-enterprise ideas, generally has the same feeling but for different reasons, environmental policy analyst Paul Georgia said.
"No bill right now is better than the bill that [it] looks like we're going to get," he said. "We want an energy bill that will provide the American people with affordable and reliable energy. This bill simply won't do that."
Georgia said he is hopeful that the conference members will reach an agreement about ANWR drilling. Just last week, Republicans offered a plan that would designate 17.4 million acres as untouchable wilderness in ANWR -- the largest area of land dedicated as wilderness in the history of the United States. Democrats have balked at the idea.
"While we don't have a problem with opening up ANWR and we generally feel it would be a good thing, we don't think it is worth giving away enormous concessions to the Democrats to get it," he said. "It's a good thing on its own merits and the Republicans need to make the case."
Georgia said the renewable energy requirements sought by environmentalists would make energy prices too expensive, while at the same time jeopardizing the reliability of traditional energy resources.
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