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Senate backs controversial energy bill

After narrowly defeating an attempt to ban new oil and gas drilling in the waters off the Florida panhandle, the Senate on Wednesday voted 94-4 to approve a complex and controversial energy bill that satisfies hardly anyone.

The bill would revolutionize the electric utility industry, require that millions of cars and light trucks run on fuels other than gasoline and require that electric motors, light bulbs and commercial heating and air-conditioning equipment be more efficient. But the Bush administration, the bill's chief sponsors and advocates of environmental protection and energy efficiency all got less than they wanted.

To bring the bill to the floor, its sponsors _ Sens. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo. _ had to jettison a major proposal by President Bush to open the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

But they also omitted the energy-saving measure most eagerly sought by environmental groups: a substantial increase in the federally mandated standards for automobile mileage efficiency.

Sen. Richard H. Bryan, D-Nev., chief proponent of increased auto mileage requirements, said the bill's provisions requiring that most fleets of cars and light trucks be converted to fuels other than gasoline by the end of the decade "will help (reduce the nation's oil consumption) but they cannot come close" to the 2.5-million barrels of oil a day he said would be saved by increasing the mileage standards.

The United States consumes about 17-million barrels of oil a day, nearly half of it imported.

But Bryan acknowledged that in the current gloomy economic climate, Congress has no appetite for a measure that might create further trouble for the nation's reeling auto industry, and by agreement with Johnston, he refrained from pressing his mileage standards proposal.