What's preventing a House/Senate energy bill conference?

By Jonathan H Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 5, 2016 - The Senate could conceivably vote this week to replace ongoing backroom discussions with a formal House/Senate conference to reconcile the two chambers' very different energy bills.

A Senate Republican leadership staff member assured Agri-Pulse on Tuesday that the only remaining obstacle to launching the conference is the Senate's packed schedule, which leaves little floor time before the body adjourns July 15 for the party conventions and the Senate's summer break. The necessary next step is for the Senate to vote to appoint energy bill conferees to meet with counterparts already appointed by the House. “So it's just a question of when we can slot it,” the staffer says. He adds that he's confident that “if we had the vote, we'd win on it.”

On the House side, a Republican aide told Agri-Pulse that the House is equally committed to delivering a comprehensive energy bill that is sufficiently bipartisan to secure President Obama's signature. Anything less, the aide insists, would be a waste of years of bipartisan efforts.

Recalling that the Senate's energy bill passed with a solidly bipartisan 85-12 vote in April (with all 12 nay votes from Republicans), the Senate staffer says that Senate Democrats “would have a hard time voting against going to conference on something that they all voted for.” He explains that since Democrats would have the option of opposing whatever energy bill emerges from the House/Senate conference, “I don't see what their concern is about conferencing with the House… I just think they're getting pressured to not have it seem as if the Senate is working again.”

Lets Talk Food

One sign of intense pressure on Senate Democrats comes from the June 27 letter from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) urging senators to “Oppose the Motion to Agree to Conference on the House-passed amendment to S. 2012” - which would replace S. 2012 with the text of the House's H.R. 8 energy bill.

Contrasting the separate Senate and House energy bills, the LCV letter charges that “While the Senate energy package was a bipartisan compromise and the result of many months of hard work by Senators Cantwell and Murkowski, the House version is a radical giveaway to polluting fossil fuel industries that would also undermine the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and other bedrock environmental laws.”

The LCV letter adds that the House bill:

·         “fails to include the most positive provisions in the Senate energy bill, including the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), energy efficiency provisions, and needed funding for clean energy,”

·         “contains efficiency provisions that would increase energy use and costs to consumers,”

·         “allows pipelines to be built on National Park land without the necessary environmental reviews,”

·         “could lock in dirty fossil energy for decades to come at a time that we should be investing in cleaner, cheaper alternatives,”

·         “weakens environmental review for the hardrock mining industry and jeopardizes the water quality of nearby communities,”

·         “would undermine investments in science and federal research and development.”

The League of Conservation Voters isn't alone in its environmental concerns. In a June 28 letter, 24 groups including the LCV, 350.org, Food & Water Watch, Greenpeace USA, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, warn that the House bill contains “an energy efficiency title that actually weakens energy efficiency standards, deep cuts to Department of Energy-­supported research and development . . . and the rubber-stamping of new pipelines through national parks.” The letter concludes: “Rejecting a conference with the current House offer is essential to protect against harm to our environment.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch who released her Frackopoly book in June, insists that oil and gas industry interests “are using their monopoly power - economic and political - to force public and private investments in infrastructure that will ensure, at least, another 40 years of oil and gas use.”

Hauter's book argues that rather than follow the House bill's plan to build more fossil-fuel infrastructure, there is an urgent need to “ban fracking and keep fossil fuels in the ground” in order “to create a sustainable energy future.”

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The nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), calculates that in contrast to the House energy bill, the Senate bill's energy efficiency provisions could deliver $60 billion in direct benefits. Kateri Callahan, president of the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, explained in an Environment & Energy Publishing June 23 interview that “the alliance itself is opposed to H.R. 8 as it currently stands because it actually rolls back efficiency gains that we've made in this country, and the assessment is that it would cost $20 billion in extra energy costs, wasted energy that we don't need to use, and that translates into a lot more pollution, a lot more energy use.”

Despite attacks on the House's energy bill, including veto threats from the White House, Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters last week that in meetings with Democrats on the energy bill “we made significant headway.” Dismissing calls for taking controversial House provisions “off the table” for the House/Senate conference, Murkowski insisted that in the ongoing negotiations “There's nothing that we have singled out and taken off the tree.”

One Democratic Senate staff member close to the discussions tells Agri-Pulse that “productive and high-level” conversations are continuing and are expected to lead to agreement on conferencing with the House. But the staffer indicated that the remaining hurdle is drafting an agreed joint text to be considered by the conference - a joint text that somehow would account for “the multiple veto threats of the legislative package that the House sent over to the Senate.”

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