Opinion

Pelosi's conflict of interest in natural gas bill

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There aren't many things in the fields of energy and environment on which Democrats and Republicans agree, but manipulating the U.S. tax code to make money apparently is one of them. How else to explain the unlikely partnership between oilman T. Boone Pickens, former Reagan cabinet officials James C. Miller III and John S. Herrington, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Pickens, Miller and Herrington are on the board of directors of the Clean Energy Fuels Corp., while Pelosi owns stock in the company worth $50,000 to $100,000. Clean Energy Fuels Corp. stands to be the biggest beneficiary of passage of the Nat Gas Act now before Congress.

The Nat Gas Act provides tax credits to manufacturers and owners of trucks and other vehicles if they use natural gas as their principal fuel. The bill also provides hefty tax credits for service station owners to buy and install natural gas fueling equipment and extends for five years the current 50-cents-per-gallon tax credit at the pump for buyers of natural gas. Proponents of the Nat Gas Act claim its provisions would cost taxpayers no more than $5 billion, but, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, the actual total could easily be nearer $100 billion. Either way, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. would be enriched immensely by the cash flow generated merely by changing the federal tax code to encourage more widespread use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

So what's not to like about that? Two things. First, Pickens and his partners claim the environment would benefit greatly by converting all those big rigs on the interstate highways from dirty diesel to clean-burning natural gas. But since natural gas has not previously been in wide use in this country as a transportation fuel, a conversion period to create the infrastructure to support it is required. Clean Energy Fuels Corp. specializes in both vehicle conversation and station equipment. Nat Gas supporters claim the tax benefits are temporary. Critics note that such tax credits, like federal agencies, are the nearest thing to eternal life anybody is ever likely to see on this earth.

Second, taxpayers should look askance at any measure that puts money in the pockets of Pelosi or any other lawmaker who owns stock in Clean Energy Fuels Corp. because it is impossible to know whether their advocacy is grounded in facts and logic or the effect its passage would have on their checkbooks and stock portfolios. It is true that Pelosi's ownership of a substantial interest in Clean Energy Fuels Corp. is a matter of public record because she disclosed it on her financial disclosure report. But that merely underscores the problem -- she has a fundamental conflict of interest on the Nat Gas Act that ought to disqualify her from speaking on its behalf or casting a vote on it on the House floor. Senators and representatives who are serious about cleaning up Washington should seize on this blatant conflict of interest to demand recusal by Pelosi and any other member who own stocks or other interests in firms that would materially benefit from legislation before Congress.

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