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The House of Representatives approved a wide-ranging energy bill Thursday that would do away with a 70-year-old law that restricts mergers and acquisitions in the power-utility sector. The bill repeals the Public Utility Holding Company Act, or PUHCA, a Depression-era law that bans nonutility companies from taking controlling stakes in utilities. Republican lawmakers contend that with PUHCA out of the way, sorely needed investment will flow into the energy sector. Many congressional Democrats, however, contend that the overall legislation favors energy companies over consumers and is a giveaway to oil companies. It is “clearly designed to help energy companies make more money, not help the American people save money,” said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She called it “anticonsumer, antitaxpayer, antienvironment” and said it fails to address major concerns of people across the country: high gasoline and other energy costs. Nevertheless, after two days of debate and amendments, the legislation was approved 249-183, with 41 Democrats joining the Republican majority. “This was a big, bipartisan vote,” said Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We had more than 40 Democrats vote with us.” Besides repeal of PUHCA, the bill opens up an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling and will shield makers of a controversial gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether from product liability lawsuits. MTBE has been found to contaminate groundwater. The MTBE issue brought the most dramatic moment of the day. House Republican leaders had tried to prevent a floor vote on the issue. But Democrats forced one, saying the GOP leadership wanted to shield their members from having to vote on a matter involving drinking water contamination in communities in their districts. The amendment failed by 219 to 213. The issue however is likely to meet with strong opposition in the Senate, which could kill the measure altogether. The bill also would provide more than $12 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to energy companies. Opponents of the legislation said it would do little to foster less energy use. A proposal to require higher fuel economy for cars was rejected. The administration has pushed for passage of the legislation, although a White House analysis expressed reservations about the size of the incentives to the oil and gas industries, especially a $2 billion subsidy for developing oil and gas in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. After passage, President Bush praised the bill as “an important step to secure our energy future and to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy.” Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman noted that though the measure was not perfect, “we now have a bill, something to work with.” Barton said the size of the Democratic support was encouraging and a sign that this year’s legislation might have a better chance in the Senate than the bill that died there two years ago. The Senate is likely to circulate a draft of its bill, which is expected to include PUHCA repeal, in coming weeks. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday he met with House Republicans to discuss a short list of unresolved issues and will meet with them again this week. They are hoping to finish by mid-May. Both chambers would then have to negotiate differences in their bills in a conference committee. Copyright �2005 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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