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House Resources chairman disses key provision of energy bill

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Shortly before the House began debate Wednesday on an energy bill aimed primarily at making the country less dependent on overseas oil, a House committee chairman involved in the legislation bluntly dismissed a key provision to boost the use of hydrogen fuels.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-California, a key proponent of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, whispered, "This is bulls--t," to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt as the two men stood listening to Rep. John Doolittle, R-California, talk about the benefits of hydrogen fuel at a crowded Capitol Hill news conference.

The remark, which was meant to be private, was overheard by a CNN reporter standing next to Blunt.

After the event, CNN asked Pombo why he made the off-message comment about the $2 billion alternative vehicle program proposed by President Bush and backed by the Republican congressional leadership.

"It's not a short-term solution because we just don't have the technology to produce it," he said, adding that the promised hydrogen-powered vehicles are "multimillion-dollar prototypes that nobody's going to buy."

He said, "They're just not done economically that the average person can afford them. Hopefully, if this stuff all works, 10 years from now they'll be able to produce them."

In the comments that drew Pombo's whispered comment, Doolittle said the alternative vehicle program would "turbocharge" development of pollution-free hydrogen vehicles in the United States.

"The goal is to have hydrogen vehicles on our roads by 2020," Doolittle said enthusiastically. "We presently have the technology. It's not decades away, it's not five years from now. Hydrogen fuel cells exist now."

Pombo said afterward that despite his dismissive comment he thinks it's important the hydrogen technology gets funded in the bill, which is expected to pass the House Thursday before going to the Senate where it faces an uncertain future.

"Long term it's good energy policy, but this is something that's out 10 years from now,' he said.

A White House communications aide agreed, saying hydrogen-powered cars are part of the administration's long-term energy strategy. Dana Perino noted that when Bush first proposed the hydrogen program in January 2003, he said his goal was that the first car that a child born at that time would drive would be powered by hydrogen.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman also spoke at the news conference.

Ironically, Pombo, whose turn to speak at the event came right after Doolittle, opened his comments by saying last year he had a hydrogen-powered vehicle on his ranch.

"It was a lot of fun," he said.

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