WASHINGTON -- The House, winding up one of the most complex and bitter legislative debates of this session, yesterday passed a far-reaching energy bill aimed at reducing reliance on imported oil, mandating greater energy efficiency and easing federal regulations for new nuclear power plants.
An intricate compromise that attempts to balance energy conservation and new production, the 1,500-page bill represents the first time in more than a decade that Congress has devised a broad strategy for the nation's energy policies into the 21st century.
The final vote, which came after lawmakers agreed either to delete or blunt several provisions that could have triggered a White House veto, was an overwhelming 381-37.
Now virtually assured of being signed by President Bush, the bill moves to a conference with the Senate, which passed its version of the highly technical legislation in February.
While no one was completely pleased by the result, the strong bipartisan support reflected general satisfaction with the outcome.
Signaling the Bush administration's approval, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins hailed passage of the bill as a "critical milestone" in the long-frustrated quest to develop a "comprehensive and balanced" energy strategy aimed at lessening the nation's dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf.
In a series of defeats for environmentalists led by Interior Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., several provisions
that the White House strongly opposed were modified or removed from the bill. Among them was a proposal that would have obliged oil refineries to contribute to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and an amendment establishing stricter safeguards for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
Only one provision considered likely to provoke a veto was left in the bill -- an extension of a limited moratorium on offshore drilling to most areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Mr. Watkins, in a statement released after the vote, said the administration would fight to have the moratorium deleted in the conference with the Senate, whose bill contains no comparable provision.
He said the administration also opposed an amendment to restrict the right of states to control natural gas production for the purpose of protecting prices.
But Mr. Watkins' statement appeared to mark a retreat from a threat to veto the bill over these provisions. Instead, he portrayed the deletion of a host of other proposals bitterly opposed by industry as a "major victory for President Bush's leadership in developing a national energy strategy."
UI Melanie Griffin, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, said that, while en
vironmentalists were deeply disappointed with the provisions on nuclear licensing, the bill approved by the House was "good as far as it goes" and a significant improvement over the Senate version.
She cited the moratorium on offshore oil drilling and the inclusion of a set of "green tax incentives" to promote the development of renewable fuels such as solar and wind power as two of the chief improvements in the House bill.
Even if these provisions are modified in negotiations with the Senate, the legislation that will go to the president's desk this year will touch on -- and in some cases radically transform -- virtually every major sector of the domestic energy industry over the next 20 years.
L Among the far-reaching provisions contained in the bill are:
* Standards to make government buildings, new homes and many appliances from electric motors to lamp bulbs more energy-efficient.
* Reforms to restructure the electric power industry to create a new class of wholesale suppliers that will be able to transmit electricity across state lines and sell it to local utility companies.
* Requirements for government and private fleets to begin replacing cars and trucks with vehicles that run on fuels other than gasoline.
All Maryland House members voted for the bill except Helen Delich Bentley, a 2nd District Republican, who was absent.
The House energy bill would:
* Ease nuclear power plant licensing by requiring only one permit for construction and operation.
* Provide tax breaks for renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass and for some conservation practices such as using mass transit.
* Ban oil and gas drilling off most of the U.S. coastline outside of central and western Gulf of Mexico; cancel some current leases.
* Provide increased competition in the electric industry, allowing independent wholesale producers access to utility transmission lines.
* Require the federal government to cut energy use in federal buildings and encourage the development of new efficiency standards for appliances, lighting and buildings in the private sector.