Senate to act on energy legislation this month

WASHINGTON Tue May 3, 2011 6:28pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate may vote on bills this month to promote clean energy and small nuclear reactors, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday.

Congress and the White House are under pressure to fight soaring fuel costs, which are cutting into consumer spending and threatening an economic recovery.

Reid acknowledged the Senate was "way behind" in dealing with energy issues and said he wants to bring up for a vote by the end of May one or several bills from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, headed by Senator Jeff Bingaman.

Bingaman hopes to move several energy bills out of his committee this month that Reid said could be brought to the Senate floor by the Memorial Day recess.

"I don't think we can jam it all together, but I think we can take them one at a time," Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Separately, Reid said he would announce on Wednesday his plans for bringing to the floor legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate to strip billions of dollars in federal tax breaks from the biggest oil companies.

It is unclear whether a vote on that legislation could come this week or next week, Senate aides said. Legislation to kill Big Oil's tax breaks failed to pass the Senate earlier this year. However, anger from constituents over high gasoline prices and oil company profits may win over more senators.

Republicans who control the House of Representatives have said they would look at scaling back oil company tax breaks only as part of a broader tax reform effort.

One of the bills from Bingaman's committee that Reid could bring for a vote this month calls for the Energy Department to develop small nuclear reactors of below 300 megawatts that can be operated with similar reactors on the same site.

Such small reactors are cheaper and quicker to build than the new 1,000-megawatt reactors several utilities are seeking government permission to construct.

The legislation seeks to obtain an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for small modular reactors by 2021.

Another bill would boost safety in offshore drilling in response to last year's BP oil spill. Related bills that could be brought for a vote this week in the House of Representatives also call for expanding offshore drilling in areas where energy exploration has not occurred.

Bingaman's offshore bill focuses solely on safety, requiring the best technology available for drilling wells. The legislation would also impose a special fee on offshore drillers to pay for more inspectors.

Bingaman plans a committee vote before Memorial Day on a bill to create a "Clean Energy Deployment Administration" that would provide direct loans and loan guarantees to jump-start clean energy projects.

The top Republican on the committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski, voiced support for CEDA at a Tuesday hearing on the proposed agency. But she said the $10 billion program would have to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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