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Column: Energy bill fate may depend on January temperatures

Sen. Grassley, Sen. Pete Dominic of New Mexico and other proponents of the measure had 58 of the 60 votes needed for cloture when the Senate debated the energy bill conference report in November. (The final vote was 57-38, but Majority Leader Bill Frist changed his vote so he could bring the bill back up later.)

Corn farmers have roasted two Democratic senators, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Evan Bayh of Indiana, for their stand against the bill, which could double the number of bushels of corn used for ethanol production from 1 billion to 2 billion bushels by 2012.

But it’s not just Democrats who voted against cloture. Two New Hampshire senators – Judd Gregg and John Sununu – opposed the bill, in part, because of a provision exempting manufacturers of MTBE, a gasoline additive, from product liability lawsuits.

The National Farmers Union and other farm groups have called on congressional leaders to remove the methyl tertiary butyl ether provision so the energy bill could pass.

"This ridiculous battle is preventing environmental-friendly renewable alternatives contained within the energy legislation, such as the renewable fuels standard," said NFU President Dave Frederickson. "We should be protecting our environment, not its polluters. That's why we are urging lawmakers to remove the MTBE liability waiver and continue to support the renewable fuels standard within the energy bill."

That task is already proving to be much easier said than done. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, where much of the nation’s MTBE is made, said no when administration officials suggested such a compromise shortly after the Senate failed to cut off debate.

House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, who hails from Louisiana where most of the remainder of the MTBE originates, argued that manufacturers were responding to a request to improve air quality when they began making MTBE.

A few days after its first letter, the National Farmers Union joined the National Corn Growers and 16 other farm groups in writing to President Bush, urging him to "redouble your efforts" to ensure the bill receives the support necessary for passage.

The groups said the bill’s renewable fuel standard, its biodiesel provisions and accompanying tax provisions are "simply too important to our sector of the rural economy to abandon."

In a speech a few days earlier, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman almost seemed to be trying to give the administration political cover if the bill isn’t passed. "Even without the energy bill, ethanol is doing very well in this country," she said, noting that corn use in ethanol production was expected to be up 30 percent in 2003.

So the energy bill is far from a done deal, despite Sen. Grassley’s optimism. Whether the outlook changes may depend more on the weather and natural gas prices this month.

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