WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2016 - The House and Senate hold a kick-off conference meeting Thursday to launch the process of reconciling sharp differences between competing versions of the energy bill that Congress hopes to finalize this year. Watch the potential fireworks starting 9:30 a.m. Washington time here.
If passed, it will be the first major energy bill since 2007. But important developments since then make passage tough. Various interest groups want the bill to address pressing issues ranging from the surge in U.S. oil and gas production, the need to upgrade the electricity grid and protect it from cybersecurity threats, and increased concern about climate change raising the stakes for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
One example of a special interest with very specific goals for what needs to be included in the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S. 2012) comes from the National Association of Home Builders. NAHB charges that the Senate bill would ignore costs in promoting new energy-saving building codes while the House version would limit the Energy Department’s code-writing authority and “stop energy code costs from skyrocketing.” The group calls on builders across the country to contact their members of Congress to “ask them to support the House language that would put a stop to DOE lobbying efforts and ensure that any new energy code requirements are cost-effective.”
The NAHB alert to members notes that under the House provisions, “any DOE-supported code change proposal must be paid back within 10 years” while alleging that the Senate version would support new building codes “that will take 100 years to be paid back.”
Another major bone of contention is that the Senate proudly boasts that its “bipartisan legislation permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in a way that balances land acquisition with other conservation programs important to states.” This contention is a red flag to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Bishop is a key conference committee player who has made it clear that he strongly opposes the Senate’s permanent LWCF re-authorization. He wants the fund reformed to shift the focus from major federal land acquisition programs to instead supporting urban recreation projects.
In an op-ed in August, Bishop blasted the federal government for “unfettered federal land acquisition” and “acquiring millions of acres of land with little transparency, scant oversight and minimal local input.” Calling for “reform – not permanent reauthorization,” Bishop says the 1965 law’s original intent must be restored to support locally decided “recreational opportunities close to home” and end “the federal government’s powerful drive to acquire more and more land” which he says results in “less land available for schools and infrastructure as well as lost economic opportunity and diminished tax revenue.”
Bishop’s strident opposition to permanent LWCF funding may be critical as such funding was considered a key to Democrats supporting the Senate energy bill.
Because so many different interests are competing for attention, expect strong opening statements Thursday from the 47 conferees who each will have two minutes to list their priorities and whatever they consider unacceptable. This initial conference meeting will not include consideration of any bill text or amendments.
Ed Krenik, senior principal for government affairs at the Bracewell law firm in Washington, tells Agri-Pulse that the thorniest issues facing the conference committee are less focused on energy and more on the Land and Water Conservation Fund and addressing the California drought. He’s optimistic that if conferees succeed in either deciding or discarding the contentious LWCF and drought issues this month, then House and Senate staffers will be able to resolve more technical energy issues in October, allowing members to possibly finalize a bill when Congress returns for its lame duck session after the elections.
There have been reports that the Senate appointed its conferees only after the House agreed to drop its insistence on its bill’s most controversial provisions supporting fossil fuels. But Krenik says that as far as he can see, the House considers that “everything is still on the table.”
After his many meetings with House and Senate staffers over the August recess, Krenik says “there may have been some type of an agreement” between Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell from Washington, the panel’s ranking Democrat, or with the Senate leadership, but he says “I don’t get the sense that the House has bought into that type of agreement.
What happens next, Krenik says, depends a great deal on what’s revealed Thursday – on whether the conference seems ready to move toward the Senate’s bipartisan approach or toward the House’s more majority-rules stance. Until that overall direction is decided, he adds, the staffers’ hands are tied because “right now, staff is considering everything a member-level issue.”
Another energy policy insider, like Krenik a former congressional staffer, is equally optimistic that an energy bill will be passed this year . . . and that it likely will succeed in updating energy policy because conferees will leave the Land and Water Conservation Fund and California drought issues for another time and other legislation.
Reflecting the fact that the Senate bill passed on a bipartisan 85-12 vote, with ayes from 42 Republicans and 43 Democrats and all 12 nays from Republicans, while the House passed its North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act (H.R. 8) in a largely party-line 249-174, Murkowski has dismissed the House bill as “pretty much a Republican bill.” So her goal remains to have the conference produce a final reconciled bill that will “try to keep that bipartisan approach.”
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