Reg reform markup highlights potential wider involvement in energy bill

By Nick Juliano | 05/05/2015 07:02 AM EDT

A Senate committee tomorrow plans to mark up a bipartisan bill meant to streamline a federal permitting process that developers say can delay oil and gas pipelines, renewable energy installations and an array of other types of infrastructure.

Addressing permitting and siting delays is one of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s top priorities as she begins to piece together a comprehensive, bipartisan energy bill. However, tomorrow’s markup will not be held by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, but by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over governmental operations and regulatory reform issues.

The Governmental Affairs markup agenda includes S. 280, the "Federal Permitting Improvement Act," sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). The bill would create an interagency council to serve as a one-stop shop for major infrastructure projects that require federal permits, setting deadlines and establishing best practices for permitting reviews. An earlier markup was delayed to allow sponsors to work with the Obama administration to tweak the bill, a move expected to pick up at least one more Democratic backer in Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s ranking member (E&E Daily, March 5).

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Murkowski has repeatedly said that addressing permitting and siting delays to energy development would be a top priority for her bill, and she has asked Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for suggestions on how to speed infrastructure development.

The energy bill process is relatively young, and it is still too early to say whether Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) would be able to deliver a bipartisan bill out of their own committee, let alone whether such a package could make it through both chambers of Congress and win the president’s signature. But other committees likely would play a role in vetting proposals that could become part of an eventual package if an energy bill gets floor time in either chamber later this year.

"We defend our jurisdiction and try to pay same respect to other committees," ENR Committee spokesman Robert Dillon said yesterday.

While staffers on various committees often coordinate on matters that touch areas of bordering or overlapping jurisdiction, it is too soon to say how extensively other panels may be involved as an energy bill takes shape over the next month or so, aides on both sides of the aisle said yesterday. The most likely venue would be on the Senate floor, where legislation from other committees — such as the Portman-McCaskill bill — could be offered as an amendment or incorporated in a managers’ package of changes to an energy bill.

Assembling an energy bill will force Murkowski and Cantwell to seek common ground at the expense of some ideas most cherished by each party’s base. That means the final package likely will not allow for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or seek to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, as some Republicans would like, nor would it likely implement a nationwide renewable energy standard or carbon tax that some Democrats would prefer.

With bipartisan buy-in a likely prerequisite for inclusion in the energy bill, ideas like the Portman-McCaskill bill are getting more attention. In addition to McCaskill, the permitting bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, along with Maine independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the minority party. Assuming Carper backs the bill, it would need just one more Democrat to clear the 60-vote procedural hurdle necessary to get virtually anything through the Senate.

"We might just have a miracle here," McCaskill told Bloomberg-BNA last week. "We might have Republicans, Democrats, and the White House agree on something, and that would be extraordinary."

A Portman aide said the sponsors "are interested in any vehicle that would get permitting through the Senate and to the president’s desk."

Other panels that could be brought into the process include the committees on Banking, which has jurisdiction over exports of commodities, including potentially oil and natural gas; Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over crude oil shipments by rail among other issues; Finance, which oversees dozens of incentives for various sources of energy inserted into the tax code; and Environment and Public Works, whose portfolio includes the suite of U.S. EPA climate change, air and water rules that are reshaping the energy industry.

Murkowski has a strong interest in lifting the 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports and recently said she would be introducing legislation soon, although she would likely draft such a bill to ensure it was referred to her committee. Chances for the export ban to be addressed in a broad energy bill remain slim, given skepticism among most Democrats and some Republicans, but Murkowski will continue to push the issue separately. Liquefied natural gas exports enjoy more bipartisan support, and calls to expedite application approvals could become part of an energy bill.

Cantwell, meanwhile, has focused on efforts to make it safer to transport crude oil by rail, an issue of growing concern in light of the domestic production boom. Cantwell has introduced a bill to improve safety standards that has been referred to the Commerce Committee but has generated little interest from Republicans who generally worry that the administration’s rules could be too burdensome. The issue is not in the ENR Committee’s jurisdiction.

Aside from writing the energy bill, Murkowski also chairs the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over EPA and the Bureau of Land Management, among several others. Policy riders on appropriations bills also are expected to be used to target various Obama administration policies Republicans do not like, providing an alternate arena for more partisan fights to play out without potentially sinking an energy bill.

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