“I can’t find anything wrong with it. Really, there is no catch. It’s all good.”

Is the sun setting on some oil industry tax breaks?

Photo: iStockphoto

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Let the record show that these contented words were spoken by an environmentalist — Jim Presswood, a top lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council to be exact. He’s talking about the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007, introduced on Friday, which would repeal billions in tax breaks for the oil and gas industry and steer the resulting funds toward energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It’s jarring to hear such a positive assessment from a member of the green community, which for six years has been consistently expressing disappointment and outrage over energy and environmental proposals in Washington, D.C. And Presswood isn’t the only one kvelling over the legislation. At a press conference enviros held on the bill yesterday, participants were nearly in conniptions of excitement, and nary a quibble could be heard.

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“It’s a launch pad for our nation’s new energy system … a profound signal of change,” said Jeff Rickert, senior vice president of the Apollo Alliance. “This is truly a stunning reversal from last year … a huge opportunity for America,” said Anna Aurilio, an environmental lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. After the press conference, more than 70 enviros descended en masse on Capitol Hill to push the bill. Said Aurilio, “We’ve got all hands on deck.”

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, views the bill as game-changing for environmentalists. “It’s fun to finally be on offense, promoting a new energy future, after years of playing defense to stop Big Oil,” he told Muckraker.

Rock and Rollback

The CLEAN in the bill’s name stands for “Creating Long-Term Energy Alternatives for the Nation” — which, as strained legislative acronyms go, could be worse. It’s part of a broad suite of bills the new Democratic House leadership vowed to pass in the first 100 working hours of Congress, including measures to raise the minimum wage, expand stem-cell research, and reduce the cost of prescription drugs. Two Republicans — Reps. Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe Bartlett, both from Maryland — have crossed over to lend support to the legislation, which now has 197 cosponsors.

The bill would generate $14 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It would make energy companies ineligible for tax breaks designed to help the manufacturing sector, and would cut a tax break for the geological studies associated with oil exploration. Perhaps most notably, the bill aims to recoup some of the money lost via an Interior Department screwup that let oil companies off the hook for royalties from Gulf of Mexico drilling leases signed in 1998 and 1999; if companies refused to renegotiate those leases, they would be charged a $9-per-barrel “conservation fee” or banned from getting new leases in federal waters.

Energy industry reps argue that these measures would stymie efforts to attain energy independence. “This bill takes capital from U.S. oil and natural gas companies that otherwise would be spent on domestic energy exploration,” Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement. “If the goal is to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, then this bill falls far short.”

Energy lobbyist Frank Maisano told Muckraker that the bill could eventually hurt average Americans: “My bet is that there will be longer-term consequences in terms of higher gas prices down the road.”

Enviros counter that ending the tax breaks is precisely what the energy sector needs — it would finally begin to level the playing field so renewables could compete fairly. “Anything that stops subsidizing Big Oil is a good thing, because it starts putting the market back into play,” said U.S. PIRG’s Aurilio.

To Reserve and Protect

The estimated $14 billion that would be raised from tax break repeals and lease renegotiations over the next decade would be put in a new Strategic Energy Efficiency and Renewables Reserve — a federal bank account that would be used to offset tax incentives and budget appropriations for efficiency programs and renewable-energy technologies.

“This money would go over, above, and beyond the standard fiscal-year appropriations” for renewable energy, said NRDC’s Presswood, “which will make it easier to get additional renewable-energy incentive programs in place.”

Before the bill was introduced, some enviros worried that the pot of money would not be earmarked for the cleanest types of alternative energy — such as solar, wind, and cellulosic ethanol — but instead funneled toward controversial technologies masquerading as clean alternatives, like nuclear power and coal-to-liquid fuels. “We vigorously pursued language that would limit these funds only to clean, renewable technologies, exempting nuclear and coal-derived energy sources,” said Presswood. “That was a condition for our support and the Democratic leadership granted it.”

Still, the bill does not specify what percentage of the funding would go toward which renewable technologies, nor whether the monies would go toward research, development, tax credits, public-private partnerships, or other programs. NRDC is advocating that the funds be used to extend tax incentives for energy-efficient buildings, equipment, and appliances. Tax credits for buyers of fuel-efficient cars and for producers of renewable energy could also be extended. Most enviros hope the money doesn’t go toward corn-based ethanol, which is already a huge recipient of federal subsidies.

“The food fight over where the funds go will happen later,” said Presswood.

Assuming the bill passes, that is. It’s expected to sail through the House when it comes up for a vote this Thursday, Jan. 18, but chances are slimmer in the Senate, where the Democratic majority is razor-thin and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said senators might take “several months” to review the bill.

An even bigger hurdle, of course, would be getting President Bush’s signature on the legislation. The Bush administration has already delivered what could be interpreted as a preemptive strike: Last week, the Interior Department raised the royalty rates on future deep-water drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, presumably in an attempt to show that it is cracking down on one of the key problems the House bill is intended to address.

The odds are against the CLEAN Energy Act actually becoming law. Still, enviros — happy at long last to have a bill to support instead of just bills to oppose — are sure to keep the pressure on the Senate and the White House.