Energy bill conferees tackling tough issues

By Jonathan H Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2016 - If the House and Senate succeed in getting a comprehensive energy bill over the finish line this year, it will be thanks to some serious assists from the sidelines - and a “no surrender” letter from eight Republican senators.

As backroom negotiations continue over competing House and Senate energy bills, the senators sent a letter on Sept. 23 to the leaders of the three Senate and House energy and natural resources committees stating that they consider the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) “a top policy priority in the context of the Energy bill and believe maintaining this provision is crucial to advancing a conference report through the Senate.” Signing the letter were Richard Burr of North Carolina, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Steve Daines of Montana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

In their letter, the GOP senators explain that permanent LWCF reauthorization is essential for “ensuring that this highly successful program continues to meet communities' conservation needs while helping to protect and maintain our shared heritage” and is essential for protecting “much-needed access for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.”

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The senators' insistence on permanent reauthorization faces strong opposition from House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, one of the 47 energy bill conferees. Bishop's position is that the LWCF needs reform as supported by the House to shift more control to the states - and not made untouchable through the Senate bill's proposed permanent authorization.

The letter points out that a Senate floor amendment to reform LWCF and not provide permanent authorization was voted down decisively “by a wide bipartisan margin.”

Another tough issue that still needs to be dealt with by the conferees before being turned over to staffers for fine-tuning is Western water provisions. It's an issue raising hackles as both a question of state versus federal control and a drought-driven question of environmental concerns versus providing enough water for the energy industry, agriculture, and cities.

Pointing to both the West's water issues and LWCF reauthorization as the leading “big ticket items that need to be resolved,” one aide involved in the negotiations told Agri-Pulse that “at this point there have not been substantive meetings at the member level on these matters.” While several staffers insist that discussions are “ongoing and positive,” another staff member told us that the negotiations remain “amicable” but “negotiations don't seem to be moving in any direction, or in any direction very quickly.”

Given sharp differences between the House energy bill that generally favors increased fossil fuel production and use and the Senate's more bipartisan approach highlighting the importance of conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy, it's no surprise that Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, welcomes outside support.

Addressing an Alliance to Save Energy meeting last week, Murkowski called on Alliance members to “help us advertise the good things” in the Senate's Energy Policy Modernization Act, S. 2012. She asked members to “either write or sign onto an official letter of support … for the energy bill” and to “write op-eds expressing your support for a successful conference report.”

Murkowski warned that if Congress fails to pass an energy bill this year, the entire years-long process will start from scratch in 2017. So she asked Alliance members “to remind us on the Hill, us lawmakers, that this is an imperative, this is something that we have to get done before Congress wraps up at the end of this year.”

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Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan responded to Murkowski's appeal by saying that based on the senator's commitment to bipartisanship, “you don't want to bet against her.” Callahan expects a strong energy bill to be signed into law this year. But to help make it happen, she's working hard to mobilize support for the Senate bill.

In her latest email appeal, Callahan asks the Alliance's 60,000 “Efficiency NOW Advocates” to write their members of Congress and make the point that “the energy efficiency provisions that are in the Senate version of the energy bill that is being conferenced right now can save you and your fellow citizens $60 billion on your energy bills while also creating tens of thousands of new jobs and avoiding 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions.”

Callahan tells Agri-Pulse that “the poison-pill efficiency provisions that are in the House bill” remain a serious challenge. But she's confident a good energy bill will be signed into law this year thanks to “a sincere effort from people on both sides of the aisle and an intent to get a bipartisan bill, to get something that can be signed by the president.” She cautions, however, that the public must continue to push lawmakers hard because “unless they believe that people care and are watching what they are doing, and we're telling them what we want to see in that bill, they may just run out of steam, or think this is too hard and not worth the effort.”

Also at the Alliance meeting, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., one of the 47 energy bill conferees, said that despite partisan differences and the competing provisions in the House and Senate energy bills, he expects the conferees to complete a bill this year that will be “beneficial for the country, beneficial for energy efficiency.”

Kinzinger pointed out that while he's committed to nuclear power - with eight reactors in his district, the “most of any district in the country” - he's equally committed to all energy, “whether it is traditional sources of energy, natural gas and oil, whether it's solar, whether it's wind.” But he said to take full advantage of America's “vast array of energy,” lawmakers need to compromise in writing the energy bill. “Sometimes getting 80 percent of what I want or 70 percent of what I want or advancing my agenda a little bit and allowing the other side to advance their agenda a little bit,” he said, “is the best way to do government.”

Kinzinger concluded by telling Alliance members that “coming out to Washington, D.C., having your voice heard on these issues, talking about this in a bipartisan perspective even though each of you here have your own partisan leanings, and being able to say this is something that is in the broad national security of our country makes a huge difference.” With that kind of support, he said he's optimistic that “we can get to a bipartisan solution,” to sign an energy bill into law this year.


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