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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

Energy plan will leave states in the dark

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

There was a mighty big blow in Spokane last week. Record winds. Limbs down all over the place. Power outages.

But for hurricane-force damage, you can’t beat Washington, D.C. And the U.S. Senate was doing its share last week as it huffed and puffed its way through the Energy Bill, a crown jewel of President Bush’s legislative agenda almost from Day One. Yet this piece of legislation has been so flawed in its earlier incarnations even the conservative Wall Street Journal has said, in effect, better nothing than a bill so fat-soluble. Although some things have changed for the better over the years, this bill has some provisions that stink. And the Northwest is downwind.

Wednesday, for example, the Senate voted to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission final say on the siting of any terminal where liquefied natural gas — LNG — could be unloaded. This is a big deal. Imported LNG will probably become a major source of natural gas for the U.S., where its use as fuel for generating electricity has substantially increased demand. Prices, as any consumer in the Inland Northwest can tell you, have jumped as well. LNG will help bring prices down.

But any fuel can be dangerous. Although LNG, which is chilled to minus 262 degrees Fahrenheit, is not especially volatile, when it does burn the heat can be deadly as far as a mile away. The tankers that haul LNG are double-hulled for extra safety, but they can be penetrated by a terrorist rocket. That would give pause to any state or local official reviewing a permit for a LNG terminal. California’s resistance to a proposed terminal in the Los Angeles area has a lot to do with the Energy Bill language in favor of FERC.

Bill sponsor Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and FERC Chairman Pat Wood III say there is no intention to proscribe state siting authority. Wood says the only change to existing law is a time limit for state review. Don’t buy it. The National Governor’s Association does not. The Senate spiked the amendment that would have retained their role in siting decisions.

Washington and Oregon have reason for concern where LNG siting is concerned. Projects at several points along the coast, including Cherry Point near Bellingham, have been suggested.

And FERC, in pushing for control of the nation’s transmission grids, has not been sensitive to state and regional concerns, although it has backed off on some of its most dangerous ambitions.

Speaking of shorelines, watch out for a drilling rig near one in your state. The bill will allow an “inventory” of offshore oil and gas reserves. Supporters deny inventory is a prelude to drilling. Foes fear otherwise. Remember, what’s valued is counted. If oil or gas reserves are found, they will be tapped.

As to the good aspects of the bill, most notably it continues a one-cent-per-kilowatt tax break for wind farms, which have become an important part of the Northwest’s energy portfolio. The region’s farmers would benefit from biofuel incentives that until now have been mostly the Midwest’s succor.

One of the sadder aspects of the debate over the bill has been a continued indifference to federalism, particularly among conservative Republicans. Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, for example, and Idaho’s own Larry Craig.

Craig ridiculed the “not-in-my-backyard” protest by the governors who want to keep the states’ hand in LNG siting. Easy to say when you are landlocked, but then, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab will be a big beneficiary of the energy legislation.

Alexander, once a flannel-lined folksy presidential candidate, was once Tennessee’s governor. But he too had no problem stomping on state siting prerogatives. Should the wind blow, however, he suspiciously changes directions.

So concerned is he about what he says are eyesore windmills he introduced legislation that would all but kill the industry. Are they unsightly by Tennessee standards? The Tennessee Valley Authority apparently does not think so. The Southeast’s equivalent of the Northwest’s Bonneville Power Administration has started a small wind farm of its own.

Off Nantucket, their appearance may be a different matter. You see, the Tennessee senator has purchased retirement property on Nantucket. A proposed offshore wind project just might sully his seascape. Alexander’s “Environmentally Responsible Windpower Act of 2005” would not only give a state a role in monitoring offshore wind farms, it also gives adjacent states within a 20-mile “viewshed” a potential veto. And offshore wind farms would get no tax credit.

Guess when contemplating a move from conservative Tennessee to liberal Massachusetts, your view changes.

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