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High-octane energy fight

The Senate passes a version of energy legislation long sought by Bush, but it differs sharply from the House bill.

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Soaring fuel prices and concerns about a Chinese company buying a major US oil producer give a long-stalled energy bill its best shot at passage since George W. Bush took office.

The Senate Tuesday passed its version of energy reform by a bipartisan 85-12 vote, opening the door to tough talks with the House to reconcile differences over issues from drilling in the Alaskan wilderness to a controversial liability waiver for a gasoline additive that pollutes drinking water.

But with the price of crude oil topping $60 a barrel, the pressure on Congress to move an energy bill is all but irresistible.

Adding to the momentum, China's bid for the California oil group Unocal sent shock waves across Capitol Hill last week, fueling speculation that the global rush for the world's oil reserves is on.

"We are going to get the president an energy bill," says Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, who predicts a compromise by the August recess.

The deal likely to emerge opens the door to a new generation of nuclear power plants, a new natural-gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to the lower 48, and billions in subsidies for energy producers. Both bills also challenge existing bans on oil and gas exploration in pristine areas. The Senate bill requires an inventory of oil and natural-gas resources on the Outer Continental Shelf - a highly charged proposition for states like California and Florida that currently ban drilling along their coasts. The House bill permits leasing part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil and gas development.

US business interests lobbied heavily for a new energy bill. The energy sector contributed more than $50 million in the 2004 election cycle, 75 percent of it to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Vastly outspent, environmental groups gave $1.9 million, 88 percent of it to Democrats.

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