Momentum Waning for Bipartisan Energy Action

Republicans in the House and Senate have succeeded in pushing bills to overhaul the nation’s energy laws through two committees, setting up potential floor votes in their drive to revamp energy policy for the first time since 2007.

Yet serious divides have appeared among the bipartisan group of lawmakers who came together to draft the House bill, lowering the odds that the Republican-led 114th Congress will craft legislation that President Barack Obama would be willing to sign into law.

Such an outcome would extend the partisan standoff that pits fossil fuel advocates in the GOP, who want to spur more oil and gas production, against Democrats who agree with the president that any major legislation must address climate change.

Complicating the landscape is the Republican push to lift the ban on oil exports over objections by the administration and Democrats in both chambers.

The House was to vote by the end of this week on an export ban repeal bill ( HR 702) by Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, that has the support of the Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He is seen as the leading candidate to replace departing Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

Two measures in the Senate to lift the ban have also failed to win much Democratic support. A repeal bill, with offshore drilling and state royalty revenue provisions (S 2011) was reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July, but no Democrats on the panel voted for it.

Another repeal bill (S 1372) by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was reported out of the Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee last week. She was the only Democrat to vote for it, however.

Republicans added language to the bill to stop the international agreement with Iran over its nuclear program until that nation pays victims who have won court judgments over terrorism attacks.

Demise Predicted

That led Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to predict the bill would not advance any further, and that any oil export legislation would have to be attached to appropriations language in December, when the current stopgap authority runs out.

A White House spokesman said last week the administration sees no need for repeal legislation, and would not support passage of the Heitkamp bill — a statement that threw a shadow over prospects to repeal the ban legislatively while Obama is in office.

The drama over oil exports come as Republicans in the House last week made clear they will push ahead with their pro-fossil fuels energy agenda, even if that means passing their policy bill on the floor with little Democratic backing.

The Energy and Commerce Committee reported out its policy measure, the Architecture of Abundance bill (HR 8), with just three Democrats voting in favor. They withdrew their support after last-minute changes drove a wedge between them and Republicans.

“It’s a bad sign for energy legislation writ large, it’s a bad sign for crude oil exports,” said Kevin Book, managing partner of analysis firm CleanView Energy Partners, of the vote in the committee.

Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey wrote a draft of the bill over the summer under an agreement to bring a measure to the committee that would win support from both sides of the aisle.

The draft bill focused primarily on energy efficiency, pipelines and coordination with Canada and Mexico, with changes  to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

It was approved by the committee’s energy panel by voice vote, though Democrats cautioned more compromises were needed to get their support.

That halting support evaporated over Republican insistence that the bill brought to the full committee include language to repeal a 2030 deadline for federal buildings to use non-fossil fuel energy.

They also objected to requirements that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission prepare electricity reliability impact studies on major Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which they contend would undermine Obama’s climate agenda.

Coal Support

Another controversial GOP addition would require FERC to analyze regional energy capacity markets, which ensure adequate reserves during high-demand periods, and make recommendations to ensure financial support for plants that can run full time, which are also known as baseload power sources.

Democrats said the language is intended to prop up coal and nuclear power over renewables.

Upton said he was optimistic the bill could be revised via amendments on the House floor and in talks with the Senate to yield legislation the president could sign. Pallone, however, scoffed at that stance, arguing the bill was changed in ways Obama would not accept.

That vote came barely a week after Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, unveiled an energy bill (S 2089) they intend to push on the Senate floor — one that sharply clashes with Republican priorities.

The bill touches key Democratic political must-haves: it would seek to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions though extensions of tax breaks for renewable energy, while repealing billions of dollars in annual tax incentives for the oil industry.

Ending those tax breaks is something Obama has sought unsuccessfully in his annual budget proposals.

The Democratic bill contrasts with the more modest energy legislation (S 2012) reported out of Senate Energy in July on an 18-4 vote, with eight Democrats voting for it.

That bill permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund and focused on provisions to advance energy efficiency and streamline Energy Department consideration of liquefied natural gas export applications. It also contained a provision to repeal the zero-carbon requirement for federal buildings by 2030.

Ranking committee member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the broader Democratic energy bill represents the agenda for her side when the committee bill hits the floor, but also for the next Congress.

She and Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are waiting for the chance to get their bill brought up for votes by the full Senate, but there appears to be a wait ahead. The Senate is expected to take up other bills first, while working toward a final fiscal 2016 spending deal by Dec. 11, when the current stopgap continuing resolution law expires.

The lack of strong Democratic backing for the House Energy and Commerce bill appears to complicate the outlook for energy legislation getting to Obama, Cantwell said, but her first objective is to get her committee’s bipartisan bill brought up on the floor.

“We’d love to see the Senate move to some floor time on energy, because we’ve got a bipartisan package out. To me that would be a good start, so we don’t really even have to worry about them for the moment,” Cantwell said of the House.

Yet Book downplayed the chances any bill — either the bipartisan policy bill or an oil exports bill — will get to Obama, given the partisan amendments energy legislation typically draws on the Senate floor, and the 2016 elections.

“If you can get it out of the Senate, assuming you could get through the Senate floor with the partisan contention yet to come, you still have to fight your way through the House and all that’s there,” he said of the Senate bipartisan bill.

“I wouldn’t give zero percent chance of bipartisan legislation, but a comprehensive bill with all that it attracts, is going to be difficult,” Book added. “And a bill that opens crude exports, which is becoming increasingly a Republican cause celebre, is also going to be difficult, because for Democrats who are trying to win back the Senate, they have very little incentive to do anything before the election.”