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WASHINGTON -- Approval of a popular measure that could put corn-produced ethanol in practically every gas tank in the country boosts chances that Congress will pass a broad-ranging energy bill this year.
Still, there are major hurdles to overcome and the bill's fate is far from certain, reports the Associated Press.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who is guiding the legislation on the Senate floor, had hoped to wrap up the bill in two weeks. But it took the first week alone just to maneuver through the ethanol provision, considered one of the least controversial parts of the bill.
And things aren't likely to get any smoother. Last year the Senate worked nearly two months on an energy bill that never made it out of Congress.
Next week, senators will tackle a proposal to sharply increase the government's support of the nuclear industry, including a measure that would have the government provide loan guarantees to build a half dozen new-generation nuclear power plants.
Domenici has pushed senators to try to work out compromises on myriad issues in the bill, but he admits there are a half dozen items that likely will lead to contentious, time-consuming floor debates and finally be resolved only by a vote.
But the Senate approval on Thursday by a lopsided 67-29 vote for the ethanol expansion ? doubling the amount of the corn-based fuel to be used in gasoline to 5 billion barrels ? was seen by Democrats and Republicans alike as giving strong incentive to get an energy package through Congress.
"The ethanol is driving this thing," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), in an interview with the Associated Press.
Boxer, who opposes many of the provisions in the Republican-crafted energy legislation, including expansion of ethanol use, said, "A lot of us will try to slow it down" but added, "if I was a betting person I'd bet it will pass."
The ethanol provision put into the bill on Thursday assures that ethanol will be a major component of the nation's gasoline, requiring refineries to use the corn-based fuel in gasoline up to a minimum of 5 billion gallons a year by 2012.
The ethanol additive is made mainly in the Midwest from corn, although it can come from other grains and biomass. Under the new mandate, it would have to be used by refiners in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, the report said.
The ethanol provision crafts a solution to a growing environmental concern over MTBE, a rival gasoline additive, that has been found to contaminate drinking water, while giving refineries more flexibility in how it blends gasoline to meet federal air quality requirements. Use of the MTBE additive would be banned.