Republicans are forging two separate roads through the energy and environmental policy landscape on Capitol Hill over the next two years. One is paved with pragmatic, bipartisan ideas, the other with combative, base-riling red meat, and the prospect of enacting the first comprehensive energy bill in more than eight years may hinge on whether those two paths ever intersect.
Generally speaking, the bipartisan path will run through the main House and Senate authorizing committees while the red meat will come when the two chambers consider annual spending bills, which are frequent targets for a host of policy riders.
In rolling out their principles for a comprehensive bill earlier this week, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders made clear their focus would be on four broad areas where they could get bipartisan buy-in — infrastructure, job-training, diplomacy and efficiency — while pledging to pursue major regulatory rollbacks yesterday. E&C Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) this week indicated that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — the subject of a soon-to-be-vetoed bill that cleared Congress this week — also would not likely be addressed in the broader energy package.
"I think they want to get something accomplished," said Larry Ward, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, a coalition in Upton’s home state.
These will be Upton’s last two years atop the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, the only panel on which he currently serves, unless he seeks a waiver from GOP term limits for chairmen. That has led some to speculate that he is attempting to burnish his legacy with a successful energy bill before handing off the gavel in 2017.
Ward noted that while he is eager to see Upton’s framework fully fleshed out, the approach the chairman is signaling tack with his reputation as one of his party’s more moderate members. Upton’s outlook, Ward said, dovetails with Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who also has a reputation as a moderate on energy and environmental issues.
In a recent speech to the forum, Snyder focused heavily on natural gas, efficiency and renewable energy as keys to the state’s approach to energy policy, which he said should include a transition away from coal. Snyder also cited the lack of federal direction as a complicating factor for the state.
"We need a comprehensive federal policy," Snyder said. "And in order for us to be successful, we need to understand that the rules may change — how they look at life may change dramatically over the next decade or so, and we need to build a policy that can respond to that effectively."
When it comes to the U.S. EPA Clean Power Plan expected to be finalized this summer, Michigan leaders have suggested some technical changes but generally expect that Congress would be unable to completely prevent the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Ward said, adding that the issue is becoming more salient on his side of the aisle.
"In the conservative or Republican movements, some of them are actually starting to talk climate, which is a big shift, I think," Ward said.
The emerging approach of House and Senate energy leaders recognizes an underlying dynamic that will remain in place at least through next year. Republicans believe there are deals to be cut with President Obama on things like efficiency and the need for new energy infrastructure, but they know he would veto any legislation touching hot-button topics like EPA’s Clean Power Plan or the long-running Keystone XL review — and that Democrats have sufficient votes in the House and Senate to back him up.
"We’re encouraged by Congressman Upton’s recognition that attacking the Clean Power Plan is really a nonstarter here in Michigan," said Jack Schmitt, deputy director of the state’s chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. "That being said, we’re certainly keeping a close eye and not taking that as the final say."
Indeed, the Republican base and industries that would be affected by EPA’s rules are clamoring to rein in an agency they see as out of control and economically damaging, so GOP lawmakers cannot just sit on their hands and hope one of their own wins the White House next year.
"Some of us live in geographic areas where we have less ability to be as outreaching as [Upton] is, and historically that’s just the way he has been," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), whose district relies heavily on coal-fired power plants that would be most affected by EPA rules. "I think he just likes to pass legislation and move the ball down the road."
Whitfield stressed that the committee would take aim at EPA rules, just in legislation "separate from" the broader energy package Upton and he are assembling.
"We are trying to stop them because we think it is going to have a negative impact, and I think this is a climate-driven administration," Whitfield told E&E Daily, although he acknowledged slim prospects for success, at least before the next election.
"On some issues, they’re not going to give on it — the president has shown he’s not going to give on it — and we’re not going to give on it," he said. "All we want is to elevate the issue and make everyone aware of it, and then you either win or you lose."
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has said she is pursuing a similar set of broad issues for an energy bill she hopes to begin assembling in the spring. Murkowski also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for overseeing EPA and the Department of Interior, where she would have more leeway to go after the climate rules and various administration proposals related to Alaska, such as its efforts to further limit potential energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore.
Murkowski earlier this month acknowledged that she had her work cut out to assemble a bill that could pass and be signed by the president without being excessively weighed down by policy riders (E&E Daily, Feb. 6). But that does not mean the bill will be rider-free, her spokesman clarified.
Details on what will or will not be in the bill are still being discussed, although Republicans have generally pointed to EPA’s climate, ozone and "Waters of the United States" rules as top priorities while Murkowski has focused heavily on perceived affronts like the ANWR decision and Interior’s refusal to authorize a road through a wildlife refuge that residents of a remote Alaska village say is needed.
Spokesman Robert Dillon said Murkowski "is acutely aware that both EPA and the Interior Department have issued a series of regulations and restrictions that are flat-out unacceptable." She plans to work with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who recently joined her subcommittee, and others to "take serious and long overdue steps to rein in both of those wayward agencies."
"She is already working to put together a bill that the president will have no choice but to sign — because enough members of the Senate are convinced of its merits — and by doing so, she hopes to prevent additional damage to the economies of Alaska and the nation as a whole," Dillon added in an email.
Voluminous details need to be filled in before any full evaluation can be completed, but observers are optimistic about the prospects for Upton and Murkowski to get something done if they can convince their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to cooperate.
"I think the intent is real," said Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs at oil refiner Tesoro Corp. "Whether or not the Democrats decide to play, I don’t know. And whether or not Murkowski and Upton can keep some of their colleagues on the right from throwing some grenades in there, I don’t know that either."
Reporter Daniel Bush contributed.