WASHINGTON - The Senate abruptly gave up work Thursday on the energy bill it had been crafting and instead passed the same bill it approved last year, which carries incentives for building a natural gas line in Alaska.
Last year's bill and newer versions debated in the Senate up through this week contain substantial financial boosts for the gas line proposal, with a few differences in how the incentives would be delivered.
But the lead sponsor of the Senate bill said he will push the newer version when he gets to a conference committee with the House.
The House passed its energy legislation in April and the two sides must meet to work out a compromise.
Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday night that passage of last year's bill was "just a vehicle to get us to conference."
"I promise you we will write many of this year's energy provisions into the bill at conference. We will do more for production. We will do more for energy diversity. We will do more for research," he said. "The final bill will look more like what I produced in committee this spring than it will the bill we are passing tonight."
Gas line incentives drew bipartisan support in the Senate when voted upon both last year and this year.
But the most recent House version does not include such measures. The GOP leadership there and the Bush administration oppose some of them.
The incentive mechanisms in the Senate bills differ in the details.
The bill this year was expected to offer a tax credit to gas companies of up to 52 cents per thousand cubic feet, depending on if and how far gas prices at North Slope wellheads fell below $1.32. The credit in the bill approved Thursday would not put such a cap on the potential tax credit.
Also, the credit would begin if prices fell below $3.25 per thousand cubic feet at a distribution hub in Alberta, Canada. The higher trigger price reflects the expected transportation costs to the hub.
The bill under debate this year had offered larger loan guarantees. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, secured language promising the government would back 80 percent of any construction loans up to $18 billion. The bill last year promised similar backing up to $10 billion. The gas line is projected to cost about $20 billion.
The Senate bill would not allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The version of the energy bill does include a section that would allow development on the refuge's coastal plain.
The two bills next go to a conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators will try to work out a compromise. That work will not begin until after Congress returns from its monthlong break.
Last year's energy bill died when the conference committee could not reach agreement.
Domenici said he probably would not seek ANWR drilling in the final version this year because that would invite a Democratic filibuster, which would kill the bill.
"But I'm not going to say absolutely not," he said.
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