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Critical US energy bill crafted in secrecy

Action on GOP-drawn measure involving oil, gas, nuclear could come as early as Friday.

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The massive energy bill taking final shape behind closed doors on Capitol Hill this week began in controversy and is heading into more of it.

Secrecy on energy issues began years ago when Vice President Cheney's energy task force met behind closed doors - a controversial process still being debated in the courts.

Now the two Republican chairmen in charge of the energy packages from the House and Senate are behind closed doors again - this time to rewrite the bill themselves without input from Democrats and other critics.

The process defies convention in this capital city.

What's known so far is that if the bill becomes law it would bring about several important changes. It would seek to:

• Open protected federal lands to exploration and drilling.

• Revive the nuclear power industry.

• Inventory offshore drilling sites from Florida to California.

• Open huge natural-gas reserves on Alaska's North Slope.

Republicans say their closed-door process is the only way to wrest a bill out of a Congress that is deeply divided on energy issues. They say the result will produce American jobs, keep energy prices low, and ease dependence on foreign oil.

But the speed and secrecy of this process is raising concerns not only in the Congress, but also from many groups watching intently from the outside. On Wednesday, Democratic members of the conference protested their "partisan exclusion" from key negotiations, and said it could seriously jeopardize chances for an energy bill.

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