Springfield State Journal Register

November 19, 2003

Durbin to vote against energy bill


WASHINGTON - Even as Illinois farm groups hailed House passage of a far-reaching energy bill that would increase the use of ethanol, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday he'll oppose the measure because it would shift the costs of cleaning up groundwater contamination to taxpayers.

Durbin said he objects to provisions in a House-Senate compromise bill that would shield producers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, from lawsuits related to groundwater contamination.

Liability protection could raise water rates in 23 Illinois communities, including Rushville, if they are forced to pay for the cleanup themselves, he said.

Four cities in Illinois have lawsuits pending over the issue: Crystal Lake, Island Lake, East Alton and Woodstock. Those lawsuits would be thrown out of court if the bill were enacted, Durbin said.

"It is the single, biggest corporate giveaway that I've seen since I've been here," the Springfield Democrat said. "What's outrageous is that the victims are families whose homes are uninhabitable because the water in the shower and the tub and the sink and the glass is dangerous. Those poor families have nowhere to turn because of this bill."

The House on Tuesday approved the compromise energy bill, 246-180, and the Senate is expected to take it up later this week. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., hasn't decided how he will vote, an aide said.

House Republicans said the MTBE measure would allow lawsuits when the groundwater contamination is the result of negligence or mishandling.

"When they're picking that out, they're looking for a reason to vote no," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who served as a House conferee.

However, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials share Durbin's concerns about the MTBE provision. It could eliminate a potential means of enforcing cleanups, IEPA spokesman Dennis McMurray said.

Durbin's opposition to the compromise could threaten ethanol provisions that have been a high priority for him and for Illinois farmers.

The energy bill would require gasoline refiners to use a minimum of 5 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2012, which Durbin supports.

"But they can't give me enough ethanol to make me forget what they've done when it comes to these outrageous polluters," he said.

Illinois farm group officials and other ethanol supporters said they still hoped to persuade Durbin to support the bill.

"We believe the merits of the bill are such that it justifies the continued support, and we would hope the entire Illinois delegation would get behind this bill as they have in the past,Ē said Illinois Farm Bureau president Ron Warfield.

The House approved the compromise bill with support from central and southern Illinois lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. They cited the ethanol provisions, as well as incentives for clean-coal technology, as the primary reasons.

In addition to Shimkus, supporters included Reps. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, and Jerry Costello, D-Belleville,

ďThis is a bonanza for our farmers. Itís a bonanza for clean air. Itís a bonanza for increased production of ethanol,Ē said LaHood, whose district includes ethanol plants in Peoria and Pekin. ďItís a boon for our area, and itís certainly a boon for Illinois.Ē

With five ethanol plants in operation and others under construction, Illinois produces more ethanol than any other state. This year, the ethanol industry is expected to produce 2.7 billion gallons of the corn-based fuel additive.

The energy bill also contains changes in the tax incentives for ethanol producers that are expected to leave more money in the highway trust fund. Those changes are critical for Illinois and other cash-strapped states seeking more federal road money.

Because ethanol is taxed at a lower rate than gasoline, states that use a lot of ethanol pay less into the federal highway trust fund and get less back.

The changes could send up to $1.4 billion a year to the highway trust fund.

Under the House-Senate compromise, additional changes are expected in next yearís transportation bill that could divert a total of $2 billion a year to the highway fund.

ďAs with any piece of legislation, this is not perfect. But it is a good bipartisan compromise that balances the needs of our nationís farmers, manufacturers and the environment,Ē Johnson said.