Working to eliminate foreign oil dependence

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 9:07 p.m.

Our nation is facing two crises — high energy costs and deteriorating credit markets — both of which require congressional action. Congress should not be rushing to adjourn without carefully considering and passing legislation to address each crisis.

Congress is continuing to work to correct the many flaws in the administration’s financial plan by strengthening protections for taxpayers, restricting excessive executive compensation and improving over-sight and accountability — all actions that I have pushed for and that should be included. But action remains stalled on comprehensive energy legislation that would help to combat high prices and put our country on a path to energy independence.

Ironically, the potential cost of the financial rescue plan is as much as $700 billion, the same amount that our country is expected to spend importing foreign oil each year if prices remain high. Yet, Congress lacks a sense of urgency in dealing with the devastating impact of this dangerous dependence on foreign oil and the high prices that are costing us jobs and slowing economic growth. I opposed adjourning for the August recess because of Congress’ failure to pass a comprehensive energy bill, a motion that passed by only one vote in the House, and I have called upon our congressional leaders to keep us in session now to complete action on energy as well as the financial bill.

High energy costs are imposing a crushing burden on the people of Maine. Already, we have seen mills in Ashland, Millinocket and Jay either close or lay off a significant number of workers. Truck drivers, farmers and fishermen are struggling with the soaring cost of diesel, seeing their earnings diminish in the face of sky-high costs. Throughout our state, families are worried about how they will afford to heat their homes this winter. One elderly woman told me that every month, more than half of her Social Security check goes to pay for her heating oil on the budget plan she has with her oil dealer. She is finding it increasingly difficult to meet her other needs for nourishing food and prescription drugs.

I have led the fight to double funding for low-income heating assistance and weatherization programs, which are likely to pass, but much more remains to be done on energy before we adjourn. The way ahead can be found in legislation that a bipartisan group of senators I am part of — dubbed the “Gang of 20” — has been working hard to develop. We have written a comprehensive bill that would expand production of American energy, promote conservation and spur the development of alternative sources of energy. The negotiations of our group have been difficult but rewarding as we have worked to achieve a consensus bill.

Our bipartisan bill recognizes that oil is not our future, but it is our present. Thus, it would expand domestic production of oil in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Outer Continental Shelf, while protecting coastal areas and sensitive regions like the Georges Bank fishing grounds. Expanded production in the Gulf of Mexico is particularly promising because the infrastructure of pipelines, oil rigs and refineries is already in place, allowing increased production of oil to benefit our economy relatively soon.

The bill also would give tax credits to help middle-income families better insulate their homes, buy alternative heating systems, purchase hybrid vehicles and make other investments in energy efficiency and conservation that will enable them to reduce their energy use and collectively our country to lessen its dependence on foreign oil. These tax credits would be paid for by terminating the needless tax breaks given to the big oil companies.

To pursue alternatives, our legislation would invest billions of dollars in next-generation fuels and advanced batteries for vehicles; extend tax incentives for wind, solar and geothermal energy through 2011 to create greater certainty and to spur more private sector investment; and expand transmission capacity for power from renewable sources. This increased transmission capacity is particularly important if Maine is to realize the exciting potential of off-shore wind farms to generate electricity. It would also help bring about T. Boone Pickens’ plan for expanded wind power in the middle of our country. Our Gang of 20 had a productive meeting with Mr. Pickens earlier this week to discuss how we could work together to achieve our common goal of reducing our dependence on Middle East oil.

There is a lot we can do to ease the energy crisis and to put our nation on a path of energy independence by the year 2020. And Congress should recognize that this threat to our economy and the well being of our people warrants as much attention and action as the financial rescue legislation.

Susan Collins is Maine’s junior U.S. senator. She is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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