As lawmakers weigh a range of options following the defeat in the Senate this week of highly partisan energy bills, many are looking to President Obama to help loosen political gridlock over energy policy or use his executive powers to spur new production.
Votes this week on a measure from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to slash oil industry tax breaks and a proposal by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to ramp up drilling and leasing failed to garner bipartisan support. Both bills were offered as the political parties seek an advantage on the vexing issue of skyrocketing gasoline prices.
Now the question is, what comes next?
While some senators and House members are promising to keep pushing energy packages they say have a chance of passing, lawmakers of both parties said Obama needs to take a more active role in brokering a deal on energy policy.
"It's never been the Congress that provided the leadership. We're two different political parties," said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). "This is where we hash out the specifics. But we don't have the leadership yet that says we have to get to this goal. I think when the president engages we'll have an energy blueprint."
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden yesterday said that while he is hopeful lawmakers can also reach bipartisan agreements on energy bills, he'd like to see the president take unilateral steps as well.
With Congress largely at a stalemate, much of the energy development that does occur in the U.S. will largely depend on where and how fast the Obama administration decides to move on leasing and permitting oil and gas and siting renewable energy on public lands.
The White House last weekend announced an ambitious interagency plan to accelerate the permitting of exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean and in the National Petroleum Reserve, speed its review of oil and gas resources in the mid- and south-Atlantic and extend leases for operators in the Gulf affected by last year's BP PLC oil spill.
The administration could also allow new leases in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic in its upcoming five-year drilling plan, although such a move would likely draw loud opposition from environmental groups and more than a few coastal lawmakers, including Republicans. The administration has said it is only considering new leases in the Arctic.
The drilling moves were praised by some GOP energy leaders. But House Energy Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said yesterday he has yet to see the administration follow through on those efforts at the agency level.
"While the president is saying one thing and leading the public to believe he's speeding up drilling in America, the reality is the Interior Department ... and EPA ... are not following his lead," Whitfield said. "His administration seems to take the opposite approach at the departmental level."
While the White House takes administrative action, senators will continue trying to move energy legislation this year.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they want to address the energy issue later this summer -- and it is widely assumed that energy policy could become a bargaining chip as Congress debates whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the chamber's No. 3 Democrat, has promised an energy bill by June or July that addresses "energy conservation and alternative energy solutions." Few details exist about that legislation, and it could be used primarily as a campaign tool to score points with voters concerned about rising gas prices.
Or it could incorporate some of the language Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has been working on in a bipartisan manner on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The panel was known for building cross-aisle consensus in the past, but counts six new Republican members this year -- including tea party favorites Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah -- and three new Democrats, and may need time to reach bipartisan accord.
"If [Sen.] Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) can get some Republicans to join her, I'm sure we can pass a bill out," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is a member of the panel. "But there are a lot more people on her committee now who are on the far right who I don't know if they believe in diversifying off of fossil fuels."
Bingaman said he's unsure whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would take up a comprehensive energy package this Congress, even if it comes out of his committee. Still, he's working diligently to clear a number of energy proposals through his panel before Memorial Day.
But Bingaman, like many Democrats and administration officials, acknowledged that there is little Congress or the White House can do in the short term to lower the price of gasoline or American's dependence on fossil fuels.
"I think many in the public think we ought to be able to legislate a reduction in oil prices, but it's really not possible," he said last week. "The price of gas is pretty directly determined by price of oil on global markets. The best thing in the long term is to reduce the amount of oil used."
House GOP to continue energy push
Meanwhile, House GOP leaders said yesterday that the defeat of McConnell's energy proposal in the Senate would not deter them from moving forward with a multi-front campaign to keep the issue of increasing the domestic energy supply squarely in the public spotlight.
Now that they've passed a trio of offshore drilling proposals from Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), House Republicans plan to push measures to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revive oil and gas leases in the West that were canceled by the Obama administration and cut regulatory red tape they say is delaying approval of oil and gas, minerals and renewable energy.
Part of that effort includes a visit today by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to a Chevron deepwater drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Looking to present an image of House bipartisanship on the issue, Upton has been joined on the Gulf Coast tour by Texas Democratic Rep. Gene Green on his energy tour.
"The real reason that we're here is to keep attention on the fact that we're not getting the necessary drilling we need in America," said Whitfield, who is accompanying Upton and Green.
Upton said Democrats should realize that the trio of high-profile votes that GOP leaders held in the House before this week's recess were just the tip of the legislative iceberg. The Republican conference has plenty of ideas on how to increase domestic energy production, Upton said, and could "continue to have these votes probably every week for the rest of the summer."
And while no bill that has yet been considered has been touted as a silver bullet that would immediately lower gas prices, Upton said that the myriad hearings House Republicans have held on energy issues have made a difference by sending a signal to oil speculators on Wall Street that Congress is at least beginning to get serious on the supply side of the issue.
Upton also indicated that the effort to increase domestic energy production might continue behind closed doors. He said he planned to meet with Bingaman sometime in the next two weeks to try to find a way to move forward.
But even if Upton can find common ground with Bingaman, Whitfield said that a more significant roadblock still stands in the way of Congress moving forward together.
"I think that Harry Reid needs to step up to the plate and be more aggressive in trying to reach some compromises over there in the Senate," Whitfield said.
Girding for a fight
Environmental groups say they are prepared for a prolonged battle over development on sensitive lands and waters, particularly in the Arctic.
"Everyone seems to be acknowledging there was a lot of political theater and partisan role playing, but it seems to me the real story is what's the administration going to do and what is the administration doing," said Bill Snape, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed a handful of lawsuits challenging the administration's permitting in the Gulf and a George W. Bush administration lease sale in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.
Snape said moving forward in the Arctic would be shortsighted considering increased domestic production would fail to lower the price of crude on the global market or the price of gasoline.
"I cannot think of a more devastating and shortsighted environmental decision than [Arctic drilling] and we're going to fight them tooth and nail," Snape said. "The issue is not what Congress is doing, it's that the administration has all the cards now. What will they do and what are they able to do under the existing legal strictures?"
If Congress hopes to force the administration's hand on expanded oil and gas development -- and particularly if it hopes to gain the backing of environmental groups -- it may need to couple such development with provisions to spur renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska and reliable supporter of oil and gas development, voted against McConnell's proposal to hold two new lease sales off the Alaska coast yesterday because it lacked provisions to spur renewables and share offshore revenues with coastal states.
"Even though there are incentives for oil and gas development, these proposals are too narrow and fail to address key items such as revenue sharing, renewables, efficiency, and others that will really solve our energy crisis," he said this week.
"I have made it clear ... I am going to fight for a real, comprehensive energy plan that embraces Alaska's potential, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and protects consumers."
Reporter Katie Howell contributed.
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