Dual-pronged focus on efficiency could be key to energy bill’s success

By Nick Juliano | 04/30/2015 07:26 AM EDT

For lawmakers crafting an energy bill this year, “efficiency” means more than just reducing energy use. It also means cutting back the burdens imposed by the federal government in trying to achieve those reductions.

For lawmakers crafting an energy bill this year, "efficiency" means more than just reducing energy use. It also means cutting back the burdens imposed by the federal government in trying to achieve those reductions.

That dual focus on energy efficiency and what key lawmakers have termed "accountability" will be on display today at a pair of hearings focused on refining part of the broader, bipartisan energy bill lawmakers hope to unveil later this year. The coinciding sessions in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could provide some key signals about the extent to which the two parties and the two chambers are going to be able to work together over the course of this year.

Both hearings will present similar legislative agendas — featuring proposals to create new efficiency programs, adjust existing or proposed rules and cut red tape at DOE — and a mix of witnesses from the Department of Energy, regulated industries and advocacy groups.


The focus on proposals to cut red tape or adjust existing standards is part of an overarching Republican effort to continue promoting a regulatory reform agenda in a way that could be more amenable to Democrats. And it indicates a potential willingness to back away from previous, more controversial proposals — such as the "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act," which would require Congress to approve any major new rule but has been unable to gain traction in the Senate and would be vetoed by the president.

"We’re trying to cut the regulatory burden, and we have to find ways to do that where we can get 60 votes, so that’s the challenge," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who has two bills on today’s agenda. "REINS Act? I’m all for that. There’s a lot of those things I’d like to do. The issue is whether we can get help on the other side to get to the 60 votes to pass it."

Several regulatory reforms are on both committees’ agendas, but several outside observers see the House taking a more industry-friendly approach. For example, the House discussion draft includes legislation initially introduced by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) that would limit DOE’s involvement in the development of building codes by limiting its advocacy for particular technologies and requiring any standards DOE endorses to deliver energy savings sufficient to offset their costs within 10 years. That language is an alternative to a provision included in the Senate’s long-standing Shaheen-Portman efficiency bill that has more support from efficiency advocates.

The House bill would also repeal Section 433 of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires federal agencies to phase out fossil fuel energy in all new federal buildings by 2030, but it does not include strengthened efficiency targets that were offered as a compromise in earlier Senate proposals to repeal 433.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, which is convening the House hearing, said he hoped to address the costs and burdens imposed on industry by some DOE efficiency rules.

"We want to improve efficiency, but I’m fed up with government bureaucrats dictating what it’s going to be all the time," Whitfield said in a brief interview this week.

Democrats are expected to defend the DOE rulemaking process by pointing out, in part, that letting the department set a single national standard saves regulated industries from having to comply with a patchwork of different state rules, in addition to touting the overall benefits of energy efficiency to lowering utility bills and reducing carbon emissions.

The Senate committee will not be considering a specific discussion draft, but its agenda includes more than 20 bills that could eventually become the efficiency title of its energy bill. Among the items on the Senate agenda include Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) compromise bill, S. 869, to repeal the fossil phaseout; Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s bill, S. 939, ordering an audit to identify duplicative green building programs; and a bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), S. 1047, to direct DOE to review other agencies’ regulations that could interfere with achieving efficiency standards.

One of the most controversial issues expected to come up is DOE’s recently proposed rule for residential furnaces, which would be delayed in legislation under consideration in both chambers, although industry groups and advocates are split over the proposed legislation, thereby raising questions about its prospects (E&E Daily, April 29).

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) stressed that the streamlining ideas being considered for inclusion in a Senate bill are "nothing revolutionary," but she said the focus on government accountability and streamlining would be repeated in other aspects of the bill.

"It’s something that while we’re treating it in its own title; it actually permeates all aspects of what we’re going to do in this updated energy architecture," Murkowski told reporters yesterday. "So accountability is a big deal. It’s not just coming up with a new area of energy efficiency. Let’s make sure it’s there for the right reasons."

Efficiency is one of the easiest subjects that will be considered in assembling the energy bill. The toughest will be when it comes time to find ways to streamline the permitting and siting processes that critics say delay construction of vital new infrastructure, such as new natural gas pipelines or expansions of the electric grid.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s appearance before the ENR Committee to defend the Quadrennial Energy Review earlier this week acknowledged the need to address those concerns, but much work remains to see whether it’s possible to arrive at a bipartisan compromise.

"I don’t think there’s anybody on our committee — probably nobody in the Congress — that would disagree that we’ve got to deal with our permitting issues because it causes uncertainty, it causes delay, it causes expense, it’s duplicative, it’s burdensome — you pick the word," Murkowski said. "And so we’re all in agreement, but again, the devil’s always in the details, so how we accomplish what we all agree to is important."

Efficiency advocates and environmentalists are wary of some of the changes to DOE’s efficiency procedures currently under discussion. Expanding that approach to the permitting process — which could require reopening laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act that environmentalists view as sacrosanct — is going to be much more difficult, aides involved in the process acknowledge.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) has a staffer working full-time on the energy bill and said he is aware of the balance that must be struck when it comes to promoting efficiency.

"I’m going to be watching out for the extent to which it goes from fostering innovation to too much regulation and a possible stifling of innovation," he said. "I think that’s a thin line, but it is something I’m aware of. In the name of promoting efficiency, you can create a bureaucratic structure that’s slow and that locks in old technologies and makes it difficult for new technologies to come online."