With lawmakers in both chambers preparing major energy bills for floor debate later this year, interest groups are scrambling to untangle policy disputes that threaten to ensnare key legislative priorities.
Leaders of the primary House and Senate committees of jurisdiction have been careful to separate the more controversial policies — such as U.S. EPA’s push to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants — from the legislative push by focusing instead on less-contentious issues, such as infrastructure, efficiency and accountability, all of which are seen as capable of drawing bipartisan support.
But the flurry of such energy-related bills introduced in recent weeks, which by some estimates tops 100, has led to a smorgasbord of legislative options, creating headaches for lawmakers and interest groups as they work to shore up support for their preferred provisions.
Even in the relatively noncontroversial area of energy efficiency, the multitude of offerings is sparking lengthy meetings among Hill staff and stakeholders.
Representatives from several groups spent four hours last month discussing a compromise to the language included in a House Energy and Power Subcommittee energy efficiency discussion draft that aims to put the brakes on the Energy Department’s controversial proposal to raise efficiency standards for residential gas furnaces (E&ENews PM, March 27).
Industry officials describe the provision in the House draft as a "placeholder" that is intended to be replaced with language similar to the carefully negotiated compromise for grid-enabled water heaters that President Obama signed into law in April.
Brad Penney, the interim director of government relations for the Alliance to Save Energy, says he’s optimistic about the "very active negotiations" on the furnace rule but notes there’s other efficiency sticking points.
The alliance strongly opposes a provision in the draft sponsored by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) that would limit DOE’s role in the process for setting building efficiency codes.
Penney said the language would hamper a key source of use reductions. "The single greatest energy savings can be obtained through good, effective building codes for newly constructed buildings," he said last week. "It would be a big step back."
The alliance wants to see building code provisions from a bill (H.R. 2177) by Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) substituted for the Blackburn-Schrader language, which Penny said would help the underlying package. "If that were done, you’re looking at a totally different comprehensive bill in terms of stakeholder support," he said.
But Bree Raum, senior director of federal affairs for the American Gas Association, said the Blackburn-Shrader provision addresses long-standing concerns over DOE’s reluctance to show the data and analysis it uses in making decisions on building standards.
"We would like to see that transparency," she said last week.
The ongoing energy discussion is also reopening debate on longstanding policy fights, threatening to upend one hard-fought compromise that interest groups had thought was resolved.
The House draft would repeal a provision from a 2007 energy law that would require a phaseout of fossil fuel-generated energy in new and significantly renovated federal buildings by 2030. But it doesn’t include an accompanying provision negotiated by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would boost future efficiency targets — a compromise that has been widely agreed to by groups across the political spectrum.
Some groups are questioning whether some of the compromises being made to win bipartisan backing are worth the trouble, given the dearth of Democratic support for the finished product.
The interstate natural gas pipeline industry, for example, said it’s unclear whether House and Senate Republicans gained momentum for legislative language aimed at fast-tracking pipeline reviews after opting for a more moderate approach.
Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), noted that few Democrats in the House appeared to support draft legislation House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans introduced after members left out provisions that mandated automatic pipeline approval after certain periods of time.
House Democrats at a hearing earlier this month generally resisted the bill, saying it would give too much control to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and could subvert other agencies’ mandates to protect public health or the environment. Furthermore, Democrats warned, setting deadlines on agency reviews could lead to applications being denied when, with additional time, they could have been modified to win approval.
"This bill was significantly watered down to get bipartisan support, so my question is where’s the bipartisan support?" Edwards said. "What’s the point of watering bills down if it doesn’t get you anything?"
INGAA continues to push for language that imposes consequences for agencies that don’t make pipeline permitting decisions on time.
The group has been supportive of Rep. Mike Pompeo’s (R-Kan.) "Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act," H.R. 161, which passed the House in January, despite a White House veto threat. That bill would require the approval of new natural gas pipelines if federal regulators did not issue a decision within prescribed time frames. FERC would have a year to decide whether to approve or deny a pipeline, with other agencies given three or four months beyond that to complete their work on any additional permits, licenses or approvals that would be needed.
But the new House draft — and a similar Senate bill — simply lay out a process through which agencies can resolve conflicts or delays in FERC’s process without mandating approval. Edwards said the ultimate energy bill needs to include consequences for agencies contributing to FERC’s environmental reviews that don’t act in a timely manner. Without teeth, the bill will allow reviews to lag, he said.
"The issue is all of the other federal and state agencies," he said. "There’s a deep amount of frustration that, willfully or otherwise, folks are ignoring that fact."
INGAA is also hopeful that the final bill will include bicameral legislation that would scrap Congress’ ability to oversee the construction of natural gas pipelines through national parks and some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes (Greenwire, May 20).
Bipartisan House members and Republicans in the Senate have floated language that would amend the Mineral Leasing Act to authorize the secretary of the Interior to approve gas pipelines through national parks without Congress’ approval. Developers have received congressional blessing to build only five gas pipelines through national parks since the 1990s, a process that at times took more than a year.
Edwards said there’s also been some talk that legislation may be in the works to provide more certainty around the Obama administration’s new plan for how federal agencies should integrate climate change into their National Environmental Policy Act reviews.
Notably, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has said the White House Council on Environmental Quality overstepped its authority when issuing draft guidance to federal agencies on NEPA reviews. The industry has expressed concern that such language, when finalized, could stall new gas pipelines and export terminals (E&E Daily, May 12).
"Agencies are already seeing the administration’s proposal and assuming they have to implement it, based on the belief that if they don’t, they’ll be subject to lawsuits," Edwards said. "[Legislation could be crafted to] clarify what the proper scope of review is for agencies required to do [environmental impact statements] under NEPA."