Reporters Roundtable

Reporters discuss energy bill, nuclear option, 'Clear Skies' and more ...

How will the Senate's energy bill compare to the House version? What's the effect of the president's stumping for energy legislation? Will the Republicans go for the "nuclear option"? Join Capitol Hill reporters and the editors of E&E Daily and Greenwire for a lively overview of the energy bill, the president's agenda, the battle over confirming a new EPA administrator and other big stories this week.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Today we're having a reporters roundtable to talk about the energy bill and other issues facing Congress this year. With us are David Leavitt, the editor of Greenwire; Mary O'Driscoll, senior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire; and Darren Samuelsohn, also a senior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Thank you all for being here.

Mary O'Driscoll: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Mary, let's start with you. You covered the energy bill most intimately on our staff. What's the latest? What can we expect in terms of what's gonna happen in the Senate picking up next in the process?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, for all of the work that the House did on the energy bill, and they did quite a bit of work on it, it all pretty much starts from scratch over in the Senate. They are in the process of putting the final touches on their bill, the Senate Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the Democrats. They've been working together. The staff has been working together, and so they should come out with something probably the end of the week, maybe sometime next week. They want to work on it pretty quickly and have a markup.

Colin Sullivan: Now, what are the major areas of difference here? What -- can we expect the Senate and House to get together this time, and what are going to be the big roadblocks?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, I think there will be some significant differences. I think in the Senate you could probably see more emphasis on conservation and efficiency, more emphasis on renewables, some differences in the electricity title. You will not see any MTBE liability protection. You will see some very different tax package elements that will have -- everything will have to be worked out with the House. And, of course, missing from the Senate bill will be any drilling in ANWR.

Colin Sullivan: So we won't see drilling in ANWR, but we will have to resolve the MTBE dispute before the conference or during conference.

Mary O'Driscoll: During conference most likely.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think we're going to get a deal this year? What's your --

Mary O'Driscoll: Everybody seems pretty optimistic about it, but, you know, the bottom line for the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, and for Joe Barton, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is that there has to be liability protection for the MTBE producers. And, if there's not, then, you know, they have said that that was their bottom line, and that's the whole thing that catches everything up. If you try to do some sort of a cleanup fund or something like that, it runs into polluter-pays problems and whether there's ever going to be enough money in that kind of a fund. So it's real questionable, but they've done worse.

Colin Sullivan: Darren, if we could bring you in for a second.

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: Another major likely area of difference between the House and the Senate is going to be on this controversial air pollution language that Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton put in the House bill. Can you, first of all, explain what that language is and why it's causing so much trouble?

Darren Samuelsohn: Barton put this in the 2003 energy bill. He's put it in again here. Basically what this does is, for an area that is in nonattainment for the one-hour ozone standard, if it can show that another area upwind of it has caused its problems, then it would get an extension from attainment deadlines, and it also wouldn't have to do some of the things that the Clean Air Act requires for a nonattainment area to do, like local things like reformulated gasoline, New Source Review permitting for existing sources, new sources. So it gives them some window room if they can prove that an upwind source is causing their problems.

Colin Sullivan: Now, is the Senate likely to swallow this language?

Darren Samuelsohn: The Senate, last time around, showed a resistance to doing it, and then Senator Domenici eventually did give in. It was something else that, you know, ultimately brought the energy bill down the last time around. But this is something that Joe Barton has really wanted. This is -- it was specifically written for his district in Dallas, and he was blaming pollution on Houston, so it's something that he has wanted. It's not something necessarily that the Senate originally tried to do. Senator Inhofe has said that they're gonna look at this. Senator Jeffords, however, has said that if this ends up in the energy bill, it's something that he might consider filibustering.

Colin Sullivan: Now Barton has said this is a regional-specific piece of language, provision. Some environmentalists say no, you can broaden it to national application. What's your assessment of that? What's this language actually do? Can you apply it to national?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, it's a little bit different between where it was in 2003 and where it is today; and the reason that Barton is giving, the reason the EPA is giving, the administration is giving, is this is something the Clinton administration offered back in the mid-1990s as something that would help people attain for the one-hour ozone standard. And I said one-hour ozone standard before, but since '03 to today, we now have the eight-hour ozone standard, which broadens out and includes a heck of a lot more counties that are in nonattainment. And so you could start to see all of these places around the country, in the Midwest and in the Northeast, say, well, you know, someone else from, you know, say Ohio is causing our problems up in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, and it could just create a domino effect. That's what the environmental groups are saying, and that's probably the argument that Jeffords will be giving if it reaches the point of a filibuster.

Colin Sullivan: I'd also like to ask you about Clear Skies, but we'll come back to that in a second.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Colin Sullivan: I'd like to move onto David Leavitt. Lately, we've seen a little bit of a different strategy with the president stumping the field for the energy bill. What's the president doing these days that he wasn't doing a year ago to try to get people to get behind energy?

David Leavitt: Well, you said it right there. He's stumping for the energy bill, and that wasn't something that we saw before. He would mention in a given speech, he would say, "Oh, and Congress really needs to get me this energy bill." And that was a big deal for Greenwire where we saw that being mentioned, and that was it. It was sort of a throwaway line. And, now, he's been out giving several speeches just on energy where he speaks for, you know, half an hour, and he goes over a lot of the different issues. He's been talking about the FutureGen, the coal, the so-called clean-coal project that they want to do in Ohio and West Virginia and, you know, that's one thing that's different. But, also, one thing I'd like to point out is that his tone is remarkably different from the way that they are pitching these ideas. When they first came through with their energy plan in 2001, the vice president took a lot of heat for calling conservation a personal virtue. And now when they pitch it, President Bush mentions in every speech he talk about energy efficiency, he talks about a lot of the parts of the bill that he wasn't really mentioning conservation now. It's an $8 billion bill, so it does have a lot, you know, on --

Mary O'Driscoll: Quite a bit for the oil and gas industries, for coal industry, for nuclear. What's interesting, though, is that a lot of observers will say that since President Bush's polling numbers have been low because of the Social Security debate and the whole situation with Terry Shiavo, that he's looking for some sort of a domestic policy issue, and that this is the one that he's really trying to use to bolster his numbers.

Darren Samuelsohn: One other thing on the same point, is a lot of people have been saying that in the House, when they were moving the energy bill last week, it was an opportunity for them to take some of the spotlight off of the ethics questions around Tom DeLay.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: So, you know, this is something that they can shift the agenda, and shift what they're talking about.

Colin Sullivan: The other thing that seems to be going on with Bush out in the field, is he seems to be sort of dampening expectations. He's saying, yes, passing the energy bill, but at the same time, it's probably not going to do anything in the short term.

David Leavitt: No, that's --

Colin Sullivan: On gasoline prices.

David Leavitt: That's a great point, and he gave a speech last week in which he actually said, you know, "I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the prices go down at the pump, but I can't, and you know that. I know that." I think that was part of his actual quote, and that's definitely a different approach than he was taking before when they would have these press conferences in front of a gas station with very high prices, and they would say we need to pass an energy bill, which definitely implies that it's going to have some kind of effect on prices.

Colin Sullivan: Mary, what is the effect that the bill's going to have on prices? Is there anything in there for the short-term that would lower prices?

Mary O'Driscoll: Not at all, really. It's -- anything would be the near-term, maybe the next five to 10 years if they -- well, this is something they passed last year, which is the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline, but, you know, these things need a lot of lead time to do any of these programs, these projects, any of these drilling and that kind of thing. You always need a long lead time, so nothing is going to happen in the near-term on prices. But it's something where they -- what they will say is we're using this as building blocks to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. But how can you say that? The only thing that really might have an effect would be the LNG language where they give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authority over siting of LNG import terminals -- that that would help kind of pave the way for streamlined process that would help those get going faster, but there's really nothing in the short-term.

Colin Sullivan: The interesting thing about LNG to me is, right now, the House energy bill would take -- would increase federal jurisdiction over LNG, but then, in the Senate, you have Senator Lamar Alexander wanting to take federal authority away from the federal regulators and give it to the states of OCS drilling. Is there an inconsistent message coming here from Congress, or how are they going to resolve it?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, yeah, but I think it all depends on whose ox is getting gored or, you know, who benefits. Industry benefits on all those fronts, because the states are keeping the -- some of the states would like to have oil drilling off their coasts. Some of them would not, so they want the states to be able to have a say in that. But then the states that do not want LNG terminals built there: California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, places like that, that these are -- it all depends on who, you know, where business is really kind of getting hurt, and business -- or where business will benefit, and business will benefit if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authority to site LNG plants and if the states can make their own decisions on banning oil drilling.

Colin Sullivan: I'm sort of wondering, I'll just throw this out to everybody. Is part of the problem here the way they actually construct an energy bill? I mean they seem to be addicted to the idea that you have to have a comprehensive bill -- that you can't do this part by part by part by part, just bite off the little pieces that we can pass. Is that the problem here? Why -- let's go to Darren -- what do you think?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, I mean, you know, you've tried before in terms of just dealing with the ethanol stuff, the ethanol mandate for the nation. That was something that was just going to move through the Environment and Public Works Committee back in 2002, and it passed out of committee, and then it got tacked onto the energy bill, and it stopped it. I mean it would have probably moved on its own, but that's such a big piece, and so popular with so many people that they saw that the energy bill could be, you know, glued onto the ethanol provisions and the whole oxygenate reformulated gasoline debate, which could have moved probably on its own, but it didn't, and it got stuck with the energy bill so --

Mary O'Driscoll: But that's part of the whole politics of energy legislation is that you have lots of regional issues that are put together into one bill. Energy politics is not Republican or Democratic. It is regional issue. You get Republicans and Democrats on both sides favoring things, and the real trick is to be able to get enough support for enough of your diverse energy-related issues that it all kind of comes together in one big Christmas tree. You pull one piece out, though, and, you know, the whole thing can fall apart as we've seen.

Colin Sullivan: You covered the bill in 1992 that passed.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Colin Sullivan: So you've been around for a while covering the energy bill process.

Mary O'Driscoll: I'm a veteran.


Colin Sullivan: What's the difference? Why could we get a bill in '92, a comprehensive bill, but we can't get a bill for the last four years?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, the politics were completely different. Then you had a Republican, Bush, as a president, but you also had Congress was controlled by the Democrats, and you had conservative Democrats in the Senate who worked with Republicans to put together an energy bill, so you had kind of a -- you had a good cohesion over there. In the House you had John Dingle, who was the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee at the time, who really shepherded the bill through, and they were able to get some, you know, a real mass together to get it -- to push everything through. Right now, you have the Republicans in control, and the Democrats are fighting, because they see what the Republicans are doing is just way too business friendly, that it's not environment friendly enough and that kind of thing, so they're able to kind of chip away at the edges on it.

Colin Sullivan: David, I'd like to ask you, the editor of Greenwire, so you sort of bring a different perspective to us, what is the reaction outside the Beltway, off the Hill, to what's going on with the energy bill process?

David Leavitt: Yeah, I mean people see this, and they say, "Why can't they pass a bill, especially when there's so much that they do agree on?" I mean we sit here, and we dwell on MTBE liability and ethanol, a lot of the stuff that's really tripped up the bill. But there's a lot in here that both sides say, "Oh, yeah, absolutely," and there's a lot of votes on both sides, so energy reliability, the electricity grid, when we had the blackout in 2003. A lot of people came together and they said, "OK, well, this makes sense. Let's do this." And they, again, they tacked it on as part of this bigger bill, and it's just sitting there. And so I think there's a lot of people sort of wondering why it's taking this long to pass some kind of consensus that we have.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, but it's not for lack of effort, because some lawmakers have tried to introduce just reliability, electricity reliability legislation; but then, you know, the leaders of the Energy Committee say, "Well, you can't do that, because we can't just have that bill go through. We need a lot of other things," and so you start getting into the critical mass argument again. So I mean they have tried, but energy is just a -- it's a very strange animal when it comes to legislation.

David Leavitt: It's also something that's, I think, a little bit hard to cover when you have a bill that's so massive. And so people tend to dwell on the things like the Daylight Savings Plan. And now that was something that everyone could kind of --

Mary O'Driscoll: Something completely obscure, but, yeah, it was --

David Leavitt: Right, exactly, and all of a sudden, it makes all the papers that, you know, this is what the House is doing, and people woke up the next day, and they opened up the paper, and like this is the energy bill that's so controversial?


David Leavitt: It's Daylight Savings?

Mary O'Driscoll: And for those of us old people who remember, the last time they did this in the '70s --


Colin Sullivan: I'm also wondering if it's become something of a cottage industry where you have so many lobbyists in this town that are so used to their billable hours on energy for the last four years, that the last thing they actually want to see is an energy bill get through.

Darren Samuelsohn: Whole industry has probably been formed around the lobbying of the energy bill, certainly, absolutely.

Mary O'Driscoll: Oh, yeah.

Colin Sullivan: Well, if we can bring up Clear Skies, an issue you cover. What's the likelihood that we're going to see some sort of integration of Clear Skies and energy -- as if we need another component.

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah, right.

Colin Sullivan: But there's been some rumors that that might be what happens on the Senate floor, so what's the update there?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, you know, it's -- until we see the Senate floor debate, we really won't know if they're gonna try and do this again. They tried to do this. This was a rumor. Something the White House wanted to do, I think, the last time the energy bill came around. The interesting thing will be, I mean just as the Barton ozone language has been sort of debated in the House. There's been hearings in the House. All of the attention on Clear Skies has been over in the Senate, and there really has never been a floor debate on Clear Skies in the Senate. So, at the very least, I'm sure the administration would love to have a debate and a passage of Clear Skies as an amendment to the energy bill. Even if the energy bill doesn't pass completely, they can at least say, "Look, we got our 50 supporters," 51 supporters, 52, however many it is, "and it's passed on the Senate floor." Now, I mean I think that that's what, you know, they might try to do. But it could, you know, bring the whole thing down at the very end.

Mary O'Driscoll: Like they don't need another element to bring the energy bill down.

Darren Samuelsohn: Exactly, but I mean it didn't get out of committee, you know. It deadlocked there. So an opportunity to debate it on the Senate floor, it would also feed into the arguments that Inhofe has been making and that the Bush administration's been making, that let's have a debate on carbon dioxide on the Senate floor where they think it will lose, and then they'll bring up Clear Skies, which they think will pass. I mean it's probably likely that they can get 50, 51, 52 supporters for, you know, major reductions for NOx, SOx and mercury.

Colin Sullivan: But isn't that exactly the scenario that the White House would like to avoid? I mean they don't even want to see carbon dioxide mandates debated in the public eye.

Darren Samuelsohn: No.

Colin Sullivan: Seems to me you're giving an opportunity for John McCain and John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, to a lesser extent, because he has a different bill, get on the Senate floor and go on and on about how we need carbon dioxide mandates.

Darren Samuelsohn: I would disagree. I mean I think that if they can get a debate on CO2 and they can make their -- on their points on CO2, the greenhouse gas registry and all of the things. I mean you can kind of muddy the waters, I guess you can say, on the whole issue of carbon dioxide and climate change, and the administration can put forward what their plan is, compare that to what Senator McCain and Joe Lieberman want to do, and then you put up the whole cost and benefits of -- do you want to wreck the economy and then we'll have that debate. So, I think that, at the very least, the administration would like to see their Clear Skies bill come up on the Senate floor and get it passed -- have it pass with a positive vote, and then watch the CO2 debate, you know, and it won't go in their favor.

Colin Sullivan: Mary, another issue that's sort of overshadowing this debate right now is the pending confrontation on the Senate floor over judicial nominations.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Colin Sullivan: I'm wondering to what extent this might block energy from ever coming up on the floor if Senator Frist goes ahead with his motion to block Democratic filibusters.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, it very well could. That could come up at any time, and it's, you know, that it's coming, it's starting to track right alongside with the energy bill, and it's very doubtful that, if they take a quick vote on it, that the energy bill will get out in front of the nuclear option, as they call it. And so the real fear among lobbyists, yeah, that lovely lobbying industry, the real fear among energy lobbyists is that the Energy Bill will get shunted aside because of the filibuster debate. But, you know, it all depends on what happens, and no one really knows what's going to happen with that.

Colin Sullivan: So they may move the highway before they can get that done, but no way they can get an energy bill debate in before they have this big confrontation.

Mary O'Driscoll: Probably not. I mean they would have to get the energy bill in, and then do the filibuster confrontation sometime in June, and I don't think that the Republicans want to wait that long. I think if they do it, I think that the feeling is, is they want to do it in May.

Colin Sullivan: I know you're working on a story today on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, his latest strategy for what he will do if Frist tries to force this confrontation. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mary O'Driscoll: Right, what the Democrats have said is that they will -- if the filibuster vote -- if the Republicans win the filibuster vote, that the Democrats will bring the Senate to a halt, that there'll be no action going on in the Senate, and so part of the strategy that Senator Reid announced is that they have nine bills that they are going to use Rule 14. They are going to invoke Rule 14, which allows them to bring up a bill to the Senate floor without going through the committee process. And then two of those bills, two of the bills involve energy. The first one is a bill by Senators Stabenow and Schumer that stops filling the strategic petroleum reserve and, in fact, releases -- calls for a release of a million barrels of oil a day from the strategic petroleum reserve. And the second one is Senator Cantwell's bill that prohibits manipulation of energy markets. So these are two -- what the -- so this is the Democrats. So what they're trying to do is bring up their, you know, for whatever takes up the Senate's floor time, is that they will try to bring up this debate on these various bills, and there are other issues as well. But what this will do is force the Republicans to come down and say no, so then there'll be, of course, Democrats and Republicans squabbling over who's really obstructing action in the Senate.

Colin Sullivan: David, another issue that could possibly slow down the energy bill in the House, although there's not a direct effect that I know Greenwire's been tracking, is the ethics controversy over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

David Leavitt: Right.

Colin Sullivan: What do you think? Do you think that's going to have any effect on major legislation moving, if there is some sort of House ethics investigation that embroils the House for the summer over Tom DeLay? Is that going to slow things down?

David Leavitt: Probably not, but, I mean, this is another question mark that we just don't know now. The Ethics Committee is one of the -- well, it is the only committee that has the makeup of an even number of Democrats and Republicans, and right now they haven't organized. Now, the Republicans have said, "Well, if you let us organize, we promise to take some kind of -- launch an investigation into DeLay." The thing about this is that the last time around, the rebukes of DeLay, was sort of -- they took those steps, but nothing really became of it, and it's probably likely that those alleged infractions were more serious than this time around. Before, he was accused of taking money from an energy company to -- in fact, this was the last time we had the conference committee to get a seat at the energy bill negotiations, and this time it's a little bit more convoluted as to how he's linked with various lobbyists who are also linked with people. We saw a story over the weekend in The Washington Post about travel plans that may have been paid for. So as to how this is going to hold up the energy bill, probably not, but we'll have to see.

Colin Sullivan: What about when it comes to negotiating over MTBE versus ethanol? I mean what do you think, Darren? Do you think that Tom DeLay's a major player in those negotiations. I mean is the straw that can break that camel's back?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, I mean as a leader, I think, you know, at some point, you know, there are people that have been calling for him to step down. A couple of House Republicans have called for him to step down, Tancredo and Shays I think are the two. So, I mean, but you're not seeing in the bigger picture of the House Republican caucus, a call for Tom DeLay to step down. You are seeing Democrats now going after him and trying to get him in his re-election campaign for the 2006 cycle. I don't think it affects his ability to negotiate, though, in conference negotiations, and I mean he's as much of a player as Hastert is, and they kind of come from different perspectives on the MTBE issue. I mean Hastert wants ethanol. DeLay wants the liability for MTBE, you know, on the Senate side, and they've kind of wanted to not even touch this, but the House has sort of forced it on them.

Mary O'Driscoll: Yeah, and it will. It'll be forced on them. There's going to have to be some discussion of it. And whether they can actually reach some sort of an agreement or not is questionable, but, as I said earlier, you know, people are actually optimistic, but that could just be bluster, so --

Darren Samuelsohn: And even without DeLay, I mean Joe Barton is just as much in the picture in terms of wanting a liability waiver, so I mean say Tom DeLay did step down as majority leader and someone else took his place, you know, still Joe Barton is going to be a major player in this, too.

Colin Sullivan: I'd like to ask you about something else. We're almost out of time.

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: Moving on from the energy bill just really quick. What's the latest on the EPA nomination fight?

Darren Samuelsohn: EPA nomination fight is still a fight, and I mean Senator Tom Carper is still waiting for information on Clear Skies and the two alternatives to it, that if they ever were to be debated in the committee, or if negotiations were to begin, you would certainly see Carper and Democrats saying, "We don't have the information that we need to be able to horse-trade in terms of getting down into the nitty-gritty details on a Clean Air Act set of amendments." So there's been a hold on him, for Steven Johnson, EPA nominee, for about two weeks now. President Bush last week did make public statements twice, "The Senate ought to confirm Steven Johnson as my nominee." He said it on Earth Day, and he said it the day before Earth Day. Senator Carper was at the White House last week on the bankruptcy bill signing into law; and, apparently, they did have a one-on-one conversation. Carper's spokesman did tell me, and Carper at least mentioned, "Hey, President Bush, this is why I'm holding up your nominee." So Bush clearly knows, at least what the issue is, and whether or not Bush would ultimately order EPA to do these studies in order for Johnson to be freed up, and that hold will last forever until Carper is satisfied, unless Republicans wanted to do a cloture vote, and they threatened on Mike Leavitt, last time around, and they said, "Democrats, we're gonna threaten your filibuster," and they did get Leavitt through. So I mean I guess we could see them trying to call the Democrats and Carper's bluff.

Colin Sullivan: Any indication that the White House might have some wiggle room there and just give Carper the analysis he wants? Or does that open a door to saying every House and Senate member that wants an analysis of their individual bill gets it?

Darren Samuelsohn: That's the argument that is being made by people, you know, on the side of EPA, but outside of EPA. But, you know, Carper's been asking for this information since 2002. Jeffords been asking, Senator Jim Jeffords has been asking for information since 2001. They haven't really gotten everything that they've asked for, and my guess is they're probably not going to get it. There might be some sort of compromise that lets everybody save face, but this information debate will probably go on for the entire Bush administration, I'm sure.

Colin Sullivan: OK, one last thing. Do we get an energy conference report by the end of the summer?

Darren Samuelsohn: End of the summer? No.

Colin Sullivan: Mary?

Mary O'Driscoll: Conference report by the end of the summer? No.

Colin Sullivan: No way? David?

David Leavitt: I'm going to have to say no, as well.

Colin Sullivan: End of the year?

Mary O'Driscoll: End of the year, maybe.

Colin Sullivan: OK.

Mary O'Driscoll: I have a feeling we'll see a repeat of 2003, but that just might be the pessimist in me.

Colin Sullivan: We'll be here all over again next year.

Mary O'Driscoll: Full Employment Act.


Colin Sullivan: Mary O'Driscoll, David Leavitt, Darren Samuelsohn, thank you all for being here. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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