Gas tax pushed as part of climate bill

FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2010 file photo, Michael Lerner pumps gas into his car at the Speedway gas station in Cleveland Hts., Ohio. Motorists are paying the highest prices for gas since October 2008. Retail gasoline prices on Thursday, March 18, 2010 rose on an expected increase in demand and as more expensive spring and summer blends of gasoline make their way to the pumps. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Amy Sancetta

WASHINGTON -- Leading voices in the Senate are considering a new tax on gasoline as part of an effort to win Republican and oil industry support for the energy and climate bill now idling in Congress.

The tax, which according to early estimates would be in the range of 15 cents a gallon, was conceived with the input of several oil companies, including Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips, and is being championed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

It is shaping up as a critical but controversial piece in the efforts by Graham, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to write a climate bill that moderate Republicans could support.

Environmental groups long have advocated gasoline taxes to reduce fossil fuel consumption; the oil industry has spent heavily in recent years to fight taxes that the industry says would harm consumers.

In this case, though, several oil companies are floating the tax plan because it figures to cost them far less than other climate proposals, including a climate bill the House passed last year.

The Senate climate bill's sponsors also appear to want the revenue raised from the tax to fund a variety of programs that would reduce industrial emissions, including helping manufacturers reduce energy use or boost wind and solar power installations by electric utilities.

But the tax has encountered stiff behind-the-scenes resistance from some Democrats, who fear the political specter of increasing gasoline prices as the cost of gasoline crests $3 per gallon this summer. And no other Republicans publicly have announced support for the framework legislation that Graham and the others are circulating on Capitol Hill.

As negotiations build toward a scheduled unveiling of the bill next week, it's still unclear whether major oil companies and their trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, will explicitly endorse the legislation or at least agree not to fund an ad campaign opposing it.