Did Northeast Doom Energy?
Regional Imbalance on Energy Committee Blamed
The Senate Republican leadership’s failure to pass a comprehensive energy bill last week may have had as much to do with an organizational matter as anything else: the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s lack of Northeastern representation.
The regional imbalance on the panel, as well as long-running tensions between New England and the rest of the country on energy matters, contributed significantly to the demise of the comprehensive bill on Friday, according to numerous Senators.
“It’s a disaster for the Northeast,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “We pay the bills. We get the acid rain, the mercury pollution, and the bad roads, and none of the benefit.”
Indeed, 15 New England lawmakers took that anger and bucked the conventional wisdom that House and Senate leaders would easily be able to pass an energy conference report stuffed with sweeteners for the South, Midwest and the Western United States, when they successfully led a coalition of 40 lawmakers to block cloture on the energy conference report.
After Friday’s setback, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) was still trying to figure out ways to revive the bill as of press time, and the Senate was not expected to bring the measure back for another vote until Monday at the earliest, if at all.
In last week’s battle over the mammoth energy bill, whose benefits both proponents and opponents agree are tilted toward Midwestern and Western energy producers, no region of the country felt more put upon or less represented in developing the bill than the Northeast.
Even Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a staunch ally of the GOP leadership, found himself opposed to much of the rest of his party on the bill and charged the Republicans who crafted the bill with perpetrating a “gratuitous attack on the Northeast.”
He cited provisions in the bill limiting the liability of the makers of the gasoline additive MTBE, new rules on who pays for electricity transmission lines, and a federal mandate for gasoline makers to use the corn-based fuel additive ethanol.
“It is philosophically wrong,” said Gregg in a Senate floor speech. “It takes a marketplace and does so much tweaking of the marketplace that you no longer have any semblance of market force in the issue of the production of energy. You simply have a grab bag of winners and losers.”
But many Western and Southern lawmakers say Northeasterners have only themselves to blame for the potential impact on their constituents.
“New England gripes about pollution, and then they gripe that they don’t have a good [electricity] grid or a good energy supply, and well, why is that?” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), an energy bill conferee. “They won’t allow drilling. They don’t want any drilling offshore. They don’t want coal. They’re scared of nuclear [energy]. They don’t like hydroelectricity because the little fishies might not like it. …We’re not their problem. They’re their problem.”
Of course, historically there has been a tension between the Northeast and much of the rest of the country when it comes to environmental and energy policies. After all, say Northeastern lawmakers, the west-to-east jet stream pushes accumulating pollutants across the country to their region.
But in the Senate, New Englanders also appear to have willingly left the big decisions on energy policy to Western state lawmakers, who have more energy production interests in their states and flock to join the Energy and Natural Resources panel.
Of the 23 members on the energy committee, 17 hail from the West or Midwest, four from the South, one from Hawaii, and one from the Northeast.
The lone Northeasterner is Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who led Friday’s successful filibuster of the energy conference report.
“One of the reasons I went on it is because I felt like the Northeast needed some representation,” said Schumer of his decision to join the panel.
But it’s not as if other Northeastern Senators have necessarily been shut out of getting a spot on the panel, insisted Lott, the former Senate Majority Leader.
“They are on Environment and Public Works, and the Westerners are on Energy, and the Southerners are on the committees that really matter — Appropriations and Finance,” Lott quipped.
Indeed, Northeasterners have gravitated away from the energy committee, despite the huge impact federal energy policies can have on their region. They are generally drawn to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, where they can take care of the dominant financial interests in their states, or the Senate Environment and Public Works panel, where they can flex their environmental muscles. (Ironically for many Northeasterners on the Environment panel, there are provisions in the energy bill rolling back some regulations in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.)
Lott noted that many of those Senators could have easily grabbed a spot on Energy at some point in their career and still adhered to Senate rules limiting the number of panels a Member may sit on.
But most Northeastern lawmakers said they weren’t interested in getting on the committee as much as they were about being consulted once important, far-reaching energy legislation, like the bill they scuttled, gets into conference committee.
“You don’t have to be on the committee around here to have an impact and influence legislation,” said Gregg. “There has to be a more balanced approach, and people have to accept the fact that energy policy is national policy. It’s not regional policy.”
But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who opposes the energy bill for different reasons, said Northeastern Senators should not complain if they haven’t taken the time to get on the committees that affect their constituents.
“I’m from Arizona, which frankly gets the short end of the stick on a whole lot of things because I’m not on certain committees,” said Kyl. “I do my best, but I have no right to always win every issue when I’m not on the committee, and neither does anybody else around here.”
Still, Northeastern lawmakers say they attempted to stay involved in the conference report.
“Many of us wrote to the conferees twice,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of letters in July and September “expressing concerns about the electricity provisions that the conferees appeared to be putting in the bill.”
Indeed, Northeasterners complain that the electricity provisions in the bill would effectively make New England ratepayers foot the bill for new transmission lines in the South that would be used to ship excess power to the Northeast or other regions of the country.
But Lott said the bill does the only fair thing.
“We have reliable, affordable, clean energy [in the South], and we’re even willing to share it and sell it to them. But they’ve got to pay for the transmission. We’re not going to ask our ratepayers to build lines that we don’t need,” explained Lott, who threatened to kill the bill in conference if the transmission language was not included.
Gregg and other Northeasterners say the region will also be hit the hardest by the MTBE liability provision. They note that the language would kill several current lawsuits originating in the Northeast — one being brought by the state of New Hampshire — alleging groundwater contamination.
Gregg also said the federal mandate for ethanol could potentially cause gas prices in the Northeast to rise by as much as 10 cents a gallon.
“The ethanol provisions, of course, forces those of us in the Northeast to buy a product that is very hard to get to the Northeast,” explained Gregg. “You can’t transport it by train or truck because it’s too flammable. You can’t put it in [pipelines] because it’s too corrosive. So you have to ship it [by river and sea], and that’s much more expensive.”
But in the grand scheme of things, many Senators still say Northeasterners need to be more engaged and, they suggest, more realistic in the future about their region’s energy needs.
“I don’t think they are dealing with reality when it comes to dealing with energy in this country,” said Lott.