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    House Approves Bill to Expand Refineries

    GOP backs legislation while Democrats say Senate will reject it.

    WASHINGTON -- House Republicans pushed through legislation Wednesday that supporters said would speed construction of new refineries to ease tight gasoline supplies. Opponents said the bill would reduce environmental protection and do little to stem high fuel costs, reported the Associated Press.

    The legislation was approved by a vote of 239-192 as House Republican leaders sought to dramatize the congressional impasse over energy legislation by bringing up for votes a series of energy-related bills. Democrats said the effort was all for show since none of the bills has a chance of being approved by the Senate.

    The refinery legislation would make the Energy Department the key agency dealing with refinery permits for plants proposed in designated development zones where there is high unemployment or where a refinery has been closed. It also would require that permit decisions be made within six months after applications are received.

    Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the bill's sponsor, argued that the measure does not waive or roll back existing requirements for environmental protection of a facility. But he said it would spur construction of new refineries by cutting through the approval process.

    But some Democrats argued that the bill would allow the Energy Department, whose primary role is to support the energy industry, to override the Environmental Protection Agency and state officials charged with enforcing clean air standards.

    It would make the energy secretary "an environmental czar" who could override state environmental agencies and local officials, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) complained. He said GOP leaders were pushing the bill through without its ramifications ever having been examined in a hearing.

    The bill was sharply criticized by environmentalists and state officials in charge of enforcing air-quality standards.

    Supporters of the bill noted that there has not been a new refinery built in the United States since 1976 and the number of refineries has declined dramatically as smaller facilities have been shut down. But industry leaders say there are many reasons that refineries haven't been built beyond problems with permitting and environmental requirements. As for high gas prices, limited refinery capacity is only one issue.

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