ENERGY POLICY:

World events spur flurry of bills, but are they too partisan to pass?

A perfect storm of skyrocketing gasoline prices and a nuclear crisis in Japan has spurred lawmakers to action on energy policy, but so far, most of their proposals are sunk in partisan disagreement.

Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate this week offered or promised to introduce a handful of energy bills, as their constituents are reeling from elevated gas prices and the world has been shocked by the worsening nuclear crisis in Japan.

In a consensus that hearkens back to the high oil prices of the summer of 2008, both parties say the United States needs to decrease its reliance on foreign oil.

But the latest measures, for the most part, conform to typical partisan priorities. Republicans are generally calling for an expansion of oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters. Democrats, on the other hand, want to see an increased focus on renewable and alternative energy technologies.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has promised to introduce several pieces of oil and gas drilling legislation when Congress returns from a weeklong district work period.

"This issue of energy dependence on foreign countries that are becoming more and more hostile to the United States, in my point of view, becomes a national security issue," Hastings told reporters this week in the Capitol. "The sooner we address this in a positive way, I think the better off we'll be."

He is planning to introduce a handful of bills to boost domestic production, including one that focuses on the Gulf of Mexico, one that deals with the outer continental shelf and one that tackles onshore drilling.

"The Obama administration seems unmoved by thousands of lost jobs, rapidly rising gasoline prices and the threat these high prices pose to our economy. But this committee will not sit idly by," Hastings said during a hearing this week (Greenwire, March 16).

Republicans are increasingly blasting the Obama administration for what they call its lack of an energy policy.

"We know the president's [college basketball] bracket picks, but we don't know his energy policy," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said yesterday during a House hearing, referring to a video posted online yesterday of Obama making his predictions about the winners of the NCAA college basketball tournament.

But the energy policy the GOP would like to see -- one that includes an expansion of oil and gas drilling -- is not likely to sit well with Obama or Democrats in Congress.

"The other side of the aisle likes to say if we just produced more oil and gas, prices will go down, but the facts suggest something different," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said this week. "Crude oil production was higher in 2010 than any year since 2003, and yet prices have been going up."

"But this doesn't mean Democrats don't support a responsible increase in oil production," Menendez added.

Menendez led a group of Democrats this week in introducing legislation that would force oil companies to accelerate the pace of drilling on federal lands they already lease.

But their measure, likewise, is not likely to find many supporters on the other side of the aisle. In fact, members of their own party have voiced opposition to the bill that would require drillers to develop federal leases in "a diligent manner" or give them up for other companies to develop.

Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat who frequently differs from more liberal members of his party on drilling issues, said yesterday that the "Use It or Lose It" legislation from Menendez and the other Democrats is "short-sighted and counterproductive."

"The answer to skyrocketing prices at the gas pump is to increase domestic oil and gas production, not impose short-sighted punishments on oil companies," Begich told the executives from major oil companies during a meeting in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

He added in a statement, "I'm glad to hear that some of my Senate colleagues are as impatient as I am to develop our domestic oil and gas reserves; however, the most important thing we can do to encourage oil companies to develop existing leases is to clear the bureaucratic red tape in federal agencies and minimize the roadblocks to development."

His comments were backed up by his Alaskan GOP colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who serves as ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"Their bill is misguided. Our laws already reflect a use-it-or-lose-it policy; that's why we have lease terms and a range of lease fees," she said in a statement. "It is the current administration's intentional slowdown of the permitting process that is stopping millions of acres onshore and offshore from producing the energy we need."

Room for bipartisanship?

Not all energy policy issues are so fiercely divided. Murkowski and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy panel, have famously worked together in the past on a number of bipartisan energy measures.

And Bingaman said yesterday on the Senate floor that a bipartisan approach on energy policy was the only way forward, stressing a need to wean the nation off an oil-based energy supply.

"We need to keep drilling -- we're good at that, and it would be helpful to have more supplies on the world market," Bingaman said. "But we need to recognize the long-term challenge is to move away from our dependence" on foreign oil.

His solution -- and one he says Congress can accomplish this year -- is to expand the use of renewable fuels, accelerate market penetration of electric vehicles and increase the use of natural gas vehicles.

"Every barrel of oil displaced from the transportation sector makes the economy stronger and our personal pocketbooks less vulnerable to volatility," he said.

Also yesterday, he and Murkowski -- along with a bipartisan group of other senators -- floated a measure that would boost development of hydropower projects.

The measure would advance project deployment by requiring better interagency coordination, funding competitive grants for increased production and investing in more research and development.

The co-sponsors include Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

"It is now all too clear that America needs a consensus policy on energy that can help keep prices low, create jobs and ensure a safe supply of power," Murkowski said in a statement. "Clean, safe and domestic hydropower can help us reach our shared clean energy goals."

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