GOP leaders are considering a new energy bill after Katrina

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told members of the Republican Conference yesterday that GOP leaders are seriously considering writing a sweeping new energy bill in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

During House Republicans’ weekly closed-door meeting, DeLay said leaders are weighing such a move, according to a leadership aide who attended. DeLay indicated that the bill would include a number of provisions that were jettisoned from earlier energy legislation passed before Congress left for the August recess, but he did not provide many other details.

After the meeting, DeLay told reporters that the hurricane was a stark reminder of the country’s dependence on the Gulf Coast for oil production and distribution. To increase domestic production, he said, Congress would consider some drilling provisions that were left out of the previous energy bill.

At an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing held to address the hurricane’s impact on already skyrocketing gas prices, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the panel’s chairman, said that the damage to oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico that Katrina caused has shown just how fragile the energy sector is and how easy it is to disrupt.

In the hurricane’s aftermath, prices at gas pumps across the country kept rising and changing by the hour, reaching $5 per gallon in some places.

The committee signed an exhaustive energy bill before the August recess, Barton said, but Katrina has become a reminder of the need to protect and expand the resources.

To fix an energy model that Barton said is stuck in the 1970s, he recommended drilling in Alaska and in coastal states where offshore drilling currently is banned.

“It would make a difference today if we were not as restrictive as we’ve been the last 20 years in where we drill,” he said.

Other Republicans used the hearing to call for the building of more oil refineries across the country.

“We need to look at price gouging today, but we also need to look at refinery capacity,” said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.). No new refineries have been built in the United States since 1971, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) added.

Democrats strongly disagreed with the remedies Republicans suggested, calling instead for more conservation and fewer subsidies to the energy industry.

“Some Republicans say that the answer is more subsidies to industry,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “We need conservation, fuel efficiency, not another round of industry handouts.”

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), meanwhile, argued that the committee needs to take a serious look at how to deter and punish those who gouge consumers with high gas prices.

“Americans are rightfully mad as hell” at the skyrocketing gas prices, agreed Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “We are not going to take it anymore.”

Others, such as Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), called for a committee investigation into why gas prices continued to rise while gas companies were already reaching record revenues.

In a particularly pointed argument, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) urged the energy industry to go on the record pledging that it would not tolerate price gouging.

“The answer has to come from them,” she said.

The petroleum industry had its defense ready.

“Many industries earned better returns in the second quarter than the oil and natural-gas companies,” argued Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

“It is ironic that we talk so much about diversifying the sources of energy supplies from abroad, yet we have done so little to geographically diversify our oil and natural-gas industry here at home,” he said in prepared statements.

If a new energy bill is introduced, it will join a bevy of Katrina-related bills that have forced House leaders to put off other priorities. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters yesterday that GOP leaders are still planning to introduce a retirement-security package and bills to increase border security and monitor illegal immigration.

Democrats used most of their time at the Energy and Commerce hearing to lambaste the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

They continued to rail against Michael Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and call for his resignation.

Waxman said that Brown testified to the committee that FEMA could respond to a disaster in 12 hours. That did not happen. “It took days,” he said.

Waxman added that administration policies aimed at protecting the public from skyrocketing gas prices and gouging have not worked.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is among a chorus of Democrats calling for Brown’s resignation.

“I feel that the Bush administration has been incompetent,” he said during the hearing.

“My constituents are outraged by the way the government has reacted,” he said, adding that the administration “acted in a shameful way.”

Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, called the federal response disgraceful. Dingell has signed on to a bill that would separate FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore it to an independent agency.

Republicans on the committee had little to say in response to the Democrats’ outcry.

“This is not a hearing to impose a blame game on anyone,” Barton said.

There are going to be “numerous opportunities” to find the blame, he added.