The decision left the oil industry hanging, but also forced the agricultural lobby and environmental organizations to wait for issues ranging from preserving scenic areas to the calculation of drilling royalty payments to be addressed.
"Time ran out, but the need for an energy bill has not," said Sen. Frank Murkowksi, R-Alaska, the Senate Energy Committee's ranking Republican.
Senate conferees from both parties were handed the House version of the bill just Tuesday and did not even begin the process of hashing out their differences and coming up with a bill everyone -- including President Bush -- could agree upon before the brief lame-duck session draws to a close.
"In that sense, today's meeting was successful," summed up a press release issued by the Energy Committee late Wednesday. "The senators quickly reached agreement that there was not enough time left to complete, and pass, an energy conference report."
Overhauling the means by which the United States meets its energy needs has been a high-profile issue in Washington in the past year as new concerns have arisen over the stability of Middle East oil supplies, the pratfall of energy deregulation in California, and the emotional question of opening protected lands to petroleum development.
In addition, there are lower-level matters such as reform of the wholesale electricity system, tax incentives for smaller oil producers and expanding the use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive that remain on the table.
"Frankly, it's incomprehensible that Congress was unable to complete a comprehensive energy bill to reduce oil imports from the Middle East, including Iraq, at the same time we are preparing to put our sons and daughters in harm's way in that very region," fumed Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, which has been leading the campaign for government mandates requiring the use of ethanol.
The RFA contends that ethanol had the backing of a majority on Capitol Hill, particularly in light of concerns about the possible ill health effects of MTBE, the petrochemical currently used in several states to perform the same clean-burning function as ethanol.
"We will continue to work with leaders from both parties and both houses of Congress to pass the fuels agreement, either as a part of an energy bill or on its own, as early as possible next year," Dinneen said.
The ethanol issue is only one of the questions that will have to be ironed out by the incoming Congress, which brings in a new Republican majority that conceivably could grease the skids for new industry-friendly legislation, although the idea of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska will likely again face stiff opposition from environmentalists.
Murkowski, who is leaving the Senate to become governor of the 49th State, said several issues in the bill had been settled in the House Energy Committee, leaving big-ticket issues such as ANWR to the 108th Congress.
"I remain convinced that in very near future, Congress will not only produce an energy package but that it will allow for the safe exploration of ANWR," he said.
Sen. Jeff Bingham, D-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, was gloomier about the prospects that Congress would be able to come together and make important decisions that need to be made about an issue that has repercussions on the economy, the environment and national security.
"The political will to act did not match the rhetoric of the past two years on the need to address looming problems such as electricity reform, natural gas supply and our increasing thirst for foreign oil," he said in a statement. "I think the task of coming up with a comprehensive approach to energy policy, absent a major crisis, will only grow more difficult in the next Congress."
(Reported by Hil Anderson, UPI Chief Energy Correspondent)