New Energy Bill Faces Tough Road

Posted February 20, 2004 at 10:27am

Just before the Presidents Day recess, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) began the process of placing a new energy bill (S.2095) on the Senate calendar. Once this process is complete, the bill will be available for consideration by the full Senate. It is hard to see, though, how this “new” bill will move Congress closer to enacting energy legislation. House Republicans reportedly will not accept a new comprehensive bill from the Senate, and S. 2095 apparently costs 50 percent to 75 percent more than the Bush administration says it will support. Passing such a bill could well set off a protracted finger-pointing match between the two houses. That would stymie

forward progress on any of the provisions contained in S. 2095, even the ones that have broad bipartisan support in both Houses. I do not think such an outcome would be in the national interest.

Just in the Senate, the process of passing an energy bill based on S. 2095 might be lengthy and rancorous. Like the failed energy conference report that preceded it, S. 2095 is the product of a closed process that excluded Democrats. It retains a number of the conference report’s controversial provisions that were never debated in the Senate, such as the rollback of ozone attainment standards. S. 2095 also fails to include provisions that have demonstrated strong bipartisan support in the Senate, such as a restoration of authority for energy-saving performance contracts in federal facilities, a renewable portfolio standard for electricity generation and effective protection for electricity consumers against market manipulation. The new bill still contains special- interest provisions that benefit some electric utility companies at the expense of others, and these provisions likely would discourage steps (such as formation of regional transmission organizations) that would lead to greater reliability in our electricity system. In a year in which legislative time is going to be at a premium, S. 2095 appears to be an inefficient starting point for actually getting something done. It might be more realistic to look to a smaller set of key, broadly supported energy provisions and to enact them, as opposed to taking up another bill that is actually longer than the conference report.

The process of chipping off discrete sections of the old energy bill and moving them separately through the Senate has already begun. The highway bill passed by the Senate, for example, contains the identical language of two sections of the energy bill conference report, sections 110 and 1445. These sections facilitate the use of recovered mineral components of concrete and granular mill tailings in cement and concrete projects — which saves energy as well as reduces waste disposal.   

On Feb. 12, just before adjourning for the recess, the Senate passed S. 1786, which contained a section reauthorizing the LIHEAP program, another provision in the energy bill conference report and S. 2095.

Senate Democrats have always supported balanced, bipartisan approaches to energy legislation. We believe that America faces crucial energy needs, and we should update our laws to meet those needs. While the length limitations of a single article preclude an exhaustive listing of topics, here are a few examples of measures that I believe deserve action now, either as stand-alone measures, as amendments to other bills moving through Congress, or as part of a greatly slimmed down and consensual energy bill.

The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has consistently supported a package of policy and tax changes to help build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the upper Midwest. America needs additional natural gas supplies, and the 35 trillion cubic feet of gas that is now stranded in the area around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, is a more reliable resource than imported liquefied natural gas from Algeria, Nigeria and Trinidad. I believe that the full, effective package of measures that the Senate has twice passed to move this project forward would continue to enjoy broad, bipartisan support.

Our Caucus also supports legislation to address the most pressing needs relating to electricity regulation and reliability. In addition to reliability legislation, we believe that such a streamlined package should include a real prohibition of price manipulation in electricity markets. We all remember the colorful names of manipulative schemes that Enron used in California and the West to bilk ratepayers — Fat Boy, Death Star, Ricochet and the like.  The Senate voted last year 57-40 to prohibit all these forms of manipulation, while S.2095 would only narrowly prohibit one.

There is no doubt that broad, bipartisan support exists in the Senate to create a renewable fuel standard for ethanol in gasoline. Such a measure does not have to be paired with environmental rollbacks or other special-interest provisions in order to pass the Senate.

In addition to consensus measures to produce more energy, there is a well-defined set of consensus proposals for saving energy through increased energy efficiency. The same basic set of proposals has been passed by both chambers of Congress in both the last Congress and this one. Regrettably, both the conference report and, to a greater extent, S. 2095 waters down these proposals. The original package of energy efficiency measures passed by both Houses deserves enactment without weakening changes.

There are also a number of energy tax incentives on both the supply side and the efficiency side that command broad, bipartisan and bicameral support. A modest package of such incentives can probably win support in both houses, as well as support by the administration.

Traditionally, energy has not been a partisan issue. Congress must get back to the tradition of passing energy legislation based on consensus and bipartisanship. With a short and congested calendar this election year, time is not an ally. The sooner we get on with the task of moving forward on the items that are most needed in energy policy and most realistic in terms of passing both houses, the better off our country will be.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.