Reporters Roundtable

E&E Daily reporters and editors preview year-end congressional blitz

As members of Congress return to Washington to put the finishing touches on 2005, they still need to wrap up work on the budget reconciliation conference and other issues. Lawmakers have some tough decisions ahead, including whether to keep controversial ANWR language and mining law changes in the final budget bill. E&E Daily reporters and editors preview the weeks to come, and also take a look at some of the issues likely to spill over into 2006, including climate change, refinery legislation, and changes to both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today for a reporter's roundtable is senior reporter Mary O'Driscoll, E&E Daily editor Colin Sullivan and reporter Dan Berman. Thank you all for being here.

Mary O'Driscoll: Sure thing.

Brian Stempeck: Colin I want to start with you. The House returns today to wrap up for the rest of the year. Senate is back next week. What are the top things Congress is going to be taking up right now?

Colin Sullivan: Well there's a lot of little things that still need to be worked out. But the big things we're tracking right now are the budget reconciliation conference process, where drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge still has to be determined. The language is in the Senate bill, not in the House bill. They're going to have to haggle over that in conference. The other big thing we're tracking is the tax reconciliation process. There's some energy language, controversial energy language, that was inserted in the Senate that the president has vowed to veto. It's not in the House bill. We're still tracking that. There's also some mining language in the budget bill that still has to be worked out. And we're tracking that.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to ask, what's your sense of what's going to happen on ANWR? The House has an uphill fight ahead of it trying deal with some of the GOP moderates on this.

Colin Sullivan: I really don't see how it's going to get in. I mean the moderate coalition, the Republican coalition in the House has vowed to stick together. The Democratic caucus, the last few weeks, has sort of impressively stuck together. I'd be surprised to see ANWR there, although the Senate conferees, led by Domenici most likely, although they haven't named conferees, they're going to insist on its inclusion. So it's going to be an interesting fight.

Brian Stempeck: Mary, what's your sense on what's going to happen on ANWR?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well I think it's going to be difficult for them to do it too. If the Republicans on the House side, if the moderates had been very quiet about their opposition to it, then it would be something else. But it's very difficult for them to have come out in such a loud prominent way, to have really come out and said they're going to stick together and they're going to fight for it. And then to turn around and vote for it or to support opening up ANWR. I really don't see that happening. It would be a significant change, a significant turnaround on their part that would be really pretty surprising. I just don't -- frankly I don't see it happening.

Brian Stempeck: Another issue that you're tracking is a major tax change that would affect oil companies. What's the latest on that?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well what the Senate did was that they included in their tax package, their tax reconciliation package, a one time accounting charge that would require the oil companies, the major oil companies, to pay the treasury $5 billion over two years. The bulk of it of course being paid in the first year. And the opponents are seeing this as a windfall profits tax of sorts, but it was really the only way that the Senate finance committee was going to get support of Senator Olympia Snowe to support the tax package. That and she opposed some of the other tax initiatives that the Republicans wanted. But that was one of the key elements of getting her to support it. It's in the Senate bill. It has attracted a White House veto threat. The House is not likely to accept it at all. There are a lot of things -- and even Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the finance committee, admitted that we do a lot of these things and the House doesn't buy it at all. And we ran into real problems. And I think that's one of them. But it's going to be an interesting fight to watch to see how that is reconciled. But I really don't give it much chance of surviving any kind of a conference. But the conference could also bog down on any number of other tax issues. I mean that's not the biggest tax debate by far, but that's the biggest tax debate as it affects the energy industry right now.

Brian Stempeck: Through the past couple of months we've heard Democrats and Republicans alike really going after the oil companies. Is this just a case of hearing bluster from Capitol Hill and nothing really coming up at?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well you know everything was predicated on the record high gasoline prices, the third quarter profit reports from the oil companies. So there was really a lot of anger directed at them. Whether that's going to continue is anybody's guess. You know you've got oil prices down, although they're starting to creep back up now. You've got gas pump prices down to pretty much the pre-Katrina levels. And you're starting to see people are really paying attention to a lot of other things. Those other things of course are high home heating fuel prices that everyone's watching to see what their home heating bills turn out to be for the winter. But there's very little that really can be done at this point. It's hard to really get that kind of momentum kind of continuing throughout the year. It will be interesting to see what happens. The windfall profit taxes, those kinds of tax based things. Everyone says we did that 20 years ago, we're really not in the mood to do that again.

Colin Sullivan: That stuff has been dead in the water for the last month. I think what you've seen over the last month has largely been set up for 2006. Set up for midterm elections where a lot of the incumbents are going to have to go back to their districts and answer one primary question on what did we do on energy policy? And that will be a major issue next year. And that's we've seen over the last month, is candidates and incumbents sort of setting themselves up for that fight next year.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, even then I'm not even sure if energy policy really will be. The electorate has a very short attention span. And if things go smoothly for 2006, if there's really no urgent problem, if there's no more big hurricanes that affect the industry and that kind of thing, they may be able to sail through on that. But a lot of that is really fueled by the immediate concerns, the drama and the catastrophes, when that happens, when the prices rise. So I think if things kind of ease through 2006, at least through the spring and summer, then there may not be a problem. But I think a lot of that, the energy policy, will be fueled by real immediate concerns of what happens.

Brian Stempeck: Dan, I wanted ask you, Colin mentioned one thing about the mining law, potential changes for that being created right now. Very controversial. People calling it a public lands giveaway. Give us a sense on what exactly it does.

Dan Berman: Well what happened was during the negotiations for the budget reconciliations, the resources committee, along with, and Richard Pombo, along with pushing drilling in ANWR, inserted what essentially is the revision of the 1872 mining law. That has been very controversial and both the mining industry and the environmental groups have been pushing for some sort of change in recent years. There's been a moratorium over the past 10 years, it's been during the appropriations process, on the patents and the sale of claims. And what this would do is, for $1,000, this is an increase over about $5, would allow the companies to once again reestablish these claims on federal land. And the real issue is there's about 6 million acres that could be subject to this process on federal lands, mostly in the West. National parks, wilderness areas are potentially, national forests, etc. And this could have a huge impact on all sorts of federal lands and management. What kind of chance it has is really up in the air. The Senate has been kind of cool to this because the resources committee came out with this. There was no hearings. It hasn't gone through the traditional process. So far Senator Thomas has been skeptical, Senator Feinstein, Senator Bingaman. And there's also concern from the recreation industry because if there's mining or commercial development on these lands all of the sudden the recreation and hunting industry, that's land that they use as well, the grazing industry. So there are a lot of people who are very interested in this. And by that fact alone it may mean that it's not something that could happen in the reconciliation package, if it happens at all.

Brian Stempeck: Now looking ahead to 2006, a couple of other issues you're tracking. The National Environmental Policy Act, we've seen some House lawmakers looking to change that.

Dan Berman: Right.

Brian Stempeck: Also some new forest legislation. How do you expect those to move next year?

Dan Berman: Well with NEPA the House Resources Committee has had a task force going through most of it this year. They're scheduled to have some sort of report out by the end of the month. It's likely that they'll, if they choose to go for any legislation, that they'll start that next year. But already this year in the energy bill and in the transportation bill we've seen some broad NEPA waivers. So kind of those industries are starting to get what they want already. So there may not be as much of a push to have kind of a broad NEPA overhaul. On the forest front, Congressman Walden has been pushing a salvage and forest recovery bill for after wildfires and after hurricanes. He introduced it last month. They've just started having hearings on it. It's something that Senator Smith has also introduced a similar bill in the Senate now. And it's something that may happen over the course of next year, but it's not something they're going to rush. They're going to take their time and they want to build a broad coalition like they did with Healthy Forests to get support in kind of an overwhelming majority on this.

Brian Stempeck: Colin, as Dan mentioned there was some major activity in Congress this year. We saw the energy bill pass. We saw the highway bill pass. Now they're working on post-Katrina legislation. As it spills over into 2006, which is an election year, how much more do you expect to see on energy and public lands legislation in these various issues?

Colin Sullivan: Well a lot of these things that we've been covering all year are left on the table. Things like Clear Skies, things like ESA reform, things like climate change, whether that might come back. The Water Resources Development Act, whether or not there might be another energy bill, which Mary could probably talk about. And like she said, a lot of it would be predicated on what happens next year. If there are high gas prices going into the summer again, if you see some sort of problems with electricity markets, if you see some sort of, God forbid, hurricane disaster relief type thing. So we'll see, and a lot of this stuff is on the table. It will have a much harder time moving next year. I mean I wouldn't predict that ESA reform or Clear Skies, two very controversial subjects, would actually move through an election year. But there'll definitely be a lot of noise about it. And something could happen.

Brian Stempeck: Mary, Senator Domenici has been talking about working on some of the refining legislation that passed the House but then stalled in the Senate EPW Committee.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Brian Stempeck: What do you expect for him to do on that as we get into early next year?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well I have a feeling he'll probably pursue it, but he wants to pursue something that, you know he understands the way you legislate on energy issues is that you do a broad range of issues. That you get buy-in from everybody. So he understands. He wants to have his refinery legislation, but he's also talking about doing something on CAFE. Now a bipartisan group of senators has proposed an oil savings, when they have an oil savings proposal, that might qualify for that. You've got Senator Ted Stevens, the chairman of the Commerce Committee talking about doing something on price gouging. And so there may be a lot of these different elements that go into an energy bill II. It took 13 years between the last energy bill before we got to the 2005 energy bill. And we could get 13 months, another year or something like that, the time compression is really amazing when you think about how quickly they have to turn around and do another piece of energy legislation.

Brian Stempeck: All right. A lot more to come in 2006. Mary, Colin, Dan, thanks for being here. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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