Lawmakers jumping onto energy bill bandwagon

By Geof Koss | 05/21/2015 07:40 AM EDT

Following an extended hiatus on pushing major energy legislation past the finish line, lawmakers are hoping to make up for lost time.

Following an extended hiatus on pushing major energy legislation past the finish line, lawmakers are hoping to make up for lost time.

While the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and House Energy and Commerce committees are taking the lead on assembling an energy package for floor debate, other panels are eyeing the bill to move provisions that reflect their slice of the sprawling energy debate.

The House Natural Resources Committee — which has oversight of energy development on federal land — jumped in on the action yesterday with a pair of subcommittee hearings on energy infrastructure bills, including one, H.R. 2295, intended to expedite the siting of natural gas pipelines on public lands, and a second to streamline the thinning of vegetation along electric transmission rights of way on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management tracts.


Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the bills are his committee’s starting point, with additional legislation and hearings to be forthcoming.

"I can’t tell you what they are right now, but, yeah, we will," he said.

While the lion’s share of energy jurisdiction in the Senate resides in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, senators have made clear they’re looking to incorporate legislation from other panels, as well.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill yesterday to reauthorize energy programs in the America COMPETES Act, with the intention of folding it into the emerging energy package. But the bulk of the broader COMPETES bill will be written by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, handing an opening to members of that panel to put their imprint on the energy package.

Additionally, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) last week plugged a bipartisan bill, S. 280, he authored with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that is intended to streamline the federal permitting apparatus as a contender for the energy bill, even though it was approved by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month (E&E Daily, May 5).

"I hope it can be part of this broader package," Portman said during a hearing on infrastructure.

‘You don’t get if you don’t try’

It’s hardly surprising that multiple committees would look to make their mark on energy, given that the last comprehensive bill to be signed into law dates to 2007, when President George W. Bush occupied the White House.

But a flurry of add-on provisions further complicates the already-tough task of seeing major energy legislation made into law, given the polarization of energy politics in recent years and the tendency of such bills to sink under their own weight.

While the comprehensive Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill that the House passed in 2009 struggled to gain traction in the Senate due to intense GOP opposition to capping heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide, a broader energy-focused measure carefully assembled with bipartisan support by then-Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) languished in the 110th Congress as Senate Democrats weighed a floor strategy.

That bill was eventually shelved, as was a bipartisan offshore drilling safety measure that also passed the Energy Committee in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill, as the two parties squabbled over how to address liability over economic damages from such spills.

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who worked with Bingaman to craft both bills, this month acknowledged the difficulties in managing sprawling energy legislation when asked about her strategy for keeping her bill above water.

"See this magic wand?" she said, holding up her hand. "I don’t have the answer to that, but you know what? You don’t get if you don’t try. And I think we have to be moving forward as if we’re going to be successful at every step."

Bud Albright, who served as chief of staff to then-House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) during the tough negotiations that led to the sweeping 2005 energy law, said that effort benefited from early agreement by all parties that they would produce a comprehensive bill.

"There’s going to be tough decisions, and everyone’s going to be a part of the decisionmaking process," recalled Albright, now a lobbyist with Ogilvy Government Relations.

Expectations over the current energy push are somewhat tempered by tensions between the GOP and the White House, which is wary of negotiating with Republicans who bring vastly different policy objectives to the table.

"I’m not sure they’ve decided what they want to do at this point," Albright said of GOP leaders. "They’re trying this piecemeal to see what we can do. … And I think it’s a good strategy" given the political environment.

For his part, current House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) yesterday said he had not spoken directly with Bishop about energy legislation, but indicated he was content to let each committee exercise its jurisdictional prerogatives.

"I know our leadership is looking to move a number of energy bills the end of next month, and we hope to be ready with some ourselves," he said.

Tax title?

The fate of the current energy push hinges on how far leaders want to push the scope of the bill, a subject that very much remains a work in progress.

For example, Murkowski and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) both want to see the Senate’s package include provisions to expand the sharing of offshore drilling revenue with coastal states. That’s been a tricky lift historically because of the budgetary impacts of such legislation, which in the past has included hefty Congressional Budget Office scores needing offsets to prevent adding to the federal deficit.

Cassidy argues that opening the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling — as his bill (S. 1276) would do — would swell federal coffers through royalty payments, lease sales and taxes.

Referencing testimony from an American Petroleum Institute official this week, he said opening the Gulf areas in his bill would generate $80 billion in new federal revenues over 18 years.

"I’ll take that score," Cassidy said.

While Cassidy said he hasn’t received a CBO score of his bill, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said the committee would be able to find offsets within its jurisdiction to pay for revenue sharing by the time the energy bill gets to the floor.

"I think we can provide pay-fors," Dillon said yesterday.

That would avoid opening the can of worms that could accompany adding a tax title to the bill — the alternate way of paying for revenue sharing.

However, Murkowski this month indicated a willingness to bring taxes into the legislative mix, noting that the 2005 and 2007 energy laws both contained titles addressing revenue.

"It’s something that I think about because I recognize in a lot of different areas in order to do what we’re trying to do, it’s helpful to have that tax piece," she said. "A lot of people are talking about the PTC, production tax credits, and how they might fit in."

She added, "That’s not our committee."

Albright acknowledged congressional appetite for revisiting energy tax breaks but said doing so outside the broader tax overhaul favored by GOP leaders would be an uphill lift.

"This has to be done in the context of the comprehensive tax reform effort," he said. "What you don’t want is this little tax issue pulled off or that one. In the end, you’ve killed your ability to do comprehensive tax reform."