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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Walz, Other Lawmakers Say Drill and Dedicate

- Walz, Other Lawmakers Say Drill and Dedicate

Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
by Mark Fischenich, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.

Congressman Tim Walz and a bipartisan group of other lawmakers are taking another shot at tackling America's looming energy crisis.

A Mankato Democrat, Walz and allies from Pennsylvania to California are pushing a proposal that would allow more oil drilling off the nation's coasts and dedicate some of the resulting trillions of dollars in drilling-rights royalties to energy independence programs.

The bipartisan group first offered the idea three years ago -- when gas prices were approaching $4 a gallon and leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties were locked into opposing positions on how to deal with the nation's long dependence on foreign oil.

After the summer of 2008, gas prices dropped dramatically, partisan gridlock derailed passage of a national energy policy, the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster unleashed the biggest offshore oil spill in American history, gas prices returned to $4 a gallon, and three years passed with no progress on a national energy plan.

On Tuesday, Walz told a group of business owners, labor representatives and energy researchers at Minnesota State University that continued inaction will cause great harm to the nation's economic outlook.

"(If) we don't anything about this, what does the future look like?" he asked.

The answer, according to Walz, is America sending more and more of its wealth to foreign oil producers. It's already nearly $400 billion a year going to oil-producing countries, some of which actively dislike the United States.

Failing to act now will also mean ceding the jobs and potential for exports that will be available to nations that lead the way in creating alternative energy technology.

"We have all our eggs in one economic basket," he said of the current reliance on fossil fuels. "We don't even own the basket, and it's a fragile basket at that."

No one in MSU's Minnesota Center for Automotive Research disagreed with Walz. The facility, which is doing research on alternative fuel vehicles, needs $480,000 to complete a dynamometer that would allow the testing of hybrid vehicles while they're running at highway speeds.

Federal and state funding was crucial in establishing the center, which moved into a new facility at MSU earlier this year, according to director Bruce Jones. Additional funding is likely to be harder to come by as Washington increasingly focuses on deficit reduction, but Walz made the case for continued -- and growing -- investment in alternative energy.

"We're preaching to the choir," said Joe Lorentz, a local highway contractor.

Lorentz pointed to the students and researchers across the table, urging them to talk to everyone they know about the importance of government investment in renewable energy and infrastructure improvements.

"Champion this bill," Lorentz said. "... Educate the public as best you can."

The bill -- called the Infrastructure, Jobs and Energy Independence Act -- would open up more of America's coastline to drilling for oil and natural gas. Royalties paid by energy companies for the drilling rights, which would total an estimated $2.2 trillion or more, would be dedicated to a variety of specific spending.

Infrastructure improvements -- including highways and bridges -- would get 20 percent. Research, development and production of alternative energy and energy efficiency would receive 15 percent. Another 8 percent would be aimed at cleaning up coal-fired power plants, and 5 percent would go to nuclear and carbon-free energy production.

Smaller amounts would go to environmental restoration, energy conservation, water clean-up and heating assistance for low-income Americans.

States where the additional oil drilling would occur would get 30 percent of the total proceeds, and 10 percent would be applied to reduction of the national debt.

Even as he makes his second attempt at getting the ambitious proposal off the ground, Walz said he thinks it has a genuine chance to become law. Some parts of it could be implemented sooner, but he expects the 2012 presidential election -- including a serious debate about America's energy future -- will have to run its course before the bulk of the proposal could be implemented.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.

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