Peoria Journal Star

November 20, 2003

Senator: Bill 'last chance' to increase ethanol use
Compromise energy bill may spark Democratic filibuster

of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senate Republicans on Wednesday called on ethanol supporters to unite behind a far-reaching energy bill that Sen. Dick Durbin and others criticized as a giveaway to oil interests and polluters.

As the Senate debate on the House-Senate compromise bill got under way, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., warned farm-state lawmakers that it might be their last chance to enact a requirement for dramatically increasing the usage of the corn-based ethanol.

The ethanol requirement contained in the bill would require refiners to use at least 5 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012, a top priority of Midwest corn growers.

Democrats have threatened a filibuster to block the Senate from voting on the compromise.

"If you kill this bill you have killed ethanol, and I don't know if it's ever coming back," said Domenici. "You don't kill this bill in pieces. You adopt it all or none."

Despite his support for the ethanol provisions, Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday he would oppose the energy bill. He spent more than an hour on the Senate floor urging colleagues to join a filibuster aimed at forcing the bill back into House-Senate negotiations.

Durbin focused his complaints on a provision that shields producers of the fuel additive, MTBE, from product liability lawsuits involving contamination of drinking water supplies.

He said the bill's liability protections for MTBE producers could increase the cleanup costs of 23 Illinois communities where traces of the fuel additive have been found in groundwater supplies. Lawsuits pending by four Illinois communities would be thrown out of court, he said.

"How in the world can we do this in good conscience? How can we turn our back on these victims?" Durbin asked in a lengthy, impassioned speech on the Senate floor.

However, Domenici said the bill's MTBE liability waiver was written narrowly to protect producers from lawsuits for a product that the federal government required them to use to reduce air pollution.

"All we've done is say, 'If you've used MTBE as prescribed by the federal government, you are not liable for damage,"'

Domenici said. "We have unquestionably said, 'If you use it wrong, if you negligently use it, if you spill it and damages result, you can be sued."'

Illinois has enacted a ban on MTBE to take effect in August.

"We're not avoiding our duty to clean up Illinois storage tanks. We still have to do that under state law," said David Sykuta, executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council.

While Democrats are split over the issue, so are Republicans.

Senate Commerce Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., also opposed the MTBE liability waiver, saying it would cost taxpayers $29 billion to clean up the contamination.

He also opposed the ethanol mandate, contending it uses taxpayers' money to boost profits of ethanol producers such as agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur.