Washington, Sept. 13, 2016 - The first joint conference to reconcile sharp differences between competing House and Senate energy bills divided sharply along party lines. The division was glaring despite optimistic forecasts from Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others among the 47 conferees asked to list their priorities in last week’s initial conference session.

Republicans called for a bill focused on accelerating U.S. oil and natural gas production, use and exports. In contrast, Democrats said that to avoid a presidential veto and have a bill signed into law this year, the final legislation must prioritize transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy in order to address climate change.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., warned Democrats against rejecting the House’s more partisan, more fossil-fuel-focused energy provisions that he said he supports. “It is widely believed that there are some Democrats in the Senate, as well as in the House, that are going to try to delay reaching an agreement until after the election or perhaps until the next Congress,” Barrasso said. But he warned that “if some of the Democrats do not want to reach an agreement, I would just tell them, do not assume that this opportunity or this offer will be available in the next Congress.”

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, R-Mich., opened the Sept. 8 conference on a positive note. He asked the conferees to appoint Murkowski as the conference chair and said, “I look forward to making progress with all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in both the House and the Senate.” (List of conferees)

Equally upbeat, Murkowski followed by saying that her goal is “to prove the skeptics wrong” and “develop a final bill that can be signed into law.” She promised to run the joint conference “in the same very open, transparent, and bipartisan manner that allowed us to pass our Senate bill.”

Upton agreed, saying “We do want to work together. We do want to prove the skeptics wrong.”

Commenting on the kickoff conference afterwards, Murkowski said it was important to hear the comments from her colleagues in the House. She also told reporters that regardless of when the Senate heads home to campaign, “I’m going to take advantage of every single day that we have here and push our staff, push members to be engaged and working on a product.”

Ed Krenik, senior principal for government affairs at the Bracewell law firm in Washington, tells Agri-Pulse that after nearly a decade without major energy legislation, the House/Senate conference demonstrated “a shared goal” of resolving issues and delivering a bipartisan energy bill to the president. Krenik’s colleague John Lee, a director at Bracewell, adds that Republicans are working as hard as possible to have a long-overdue energy bill signed this year because they’d have to start from scratch next year and “the chances are that both sides will be even further apart in the new Congress.”

But agreeing on an energy bill compromise won’t be easy. The challenge was clear in comments from Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “While the bipartisan Senate bill in my view could be much stronger in a number of areas, the House version, which was the result of a highly partisan process, would unacceptably increase energy use and costs to consumers and would undermine our nation’s climate goals,” he said.

Pallone called for writing an energy bill that includes “three essential components: infrastructure investment and modernization; direct benefits for consumers, including programs that empower them to manage their energy consumption and costs; and it must be consistent with our nation’s climate goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The first component he mentioned, infrastructure investment, already has bipartisan support to include overdue measures such as modernizing and hardening the electric grid. But he said that one grid modernization goal should be to “support more distributed and renewable energy.” And Pallone’s “benefits for consumers” priority is controversial since the Senate bill’s more stringent energy efficiency provisions face Republican complaints that tightening building codes would impose unnecessary costs.

Pallone’s most contentious demand is that any final bill “must be consistent with our nation’s climate goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and that “Any modern energy policy must deal with climate change.”

“Certainly we have made progress with renewable energy and efficiency, but there is much more that we can and must do to reduce our overall energy use and to switch to cleaner energy sources,” Pallone said. Even in this area, however, compromise may be possible. That’s because in promoting House provisions to accelerate the approval process for new natural gas pipelines and LNG (liquefied natural gas) export terminals, Republicans emphasize that increased use of low-cost U.S. natural gas reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

One example of using climate concerns to help justify greater natural gas production and use comes from the American Petroleum Institute, the leading national trade association for the oil and natural gas industry. In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, API President and CEO Jack Gerard wrote that API strongly supports House energy bill provisions and pointed out that “independent reports show exporting U.S. LNG will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.”

So Democrats could end up accepting speedier approvals for natural gas pipelines and LNG export terminals even though environmentalists charge that building new infrastructure for fossil fuels will lock in their use for another half century at the expense of developing more climate-friendly renewable energy resources like wind and solar.

Yet if the energy bill conference reaches agreement on increasing natural gas use, there will be other hurdles. Contested issues that conferees raised in their kickoff meeting include:

·      The Senate bill’s proposed permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and other Republicans voiced strong opposition. Along with fellow Democrats, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona called permanent authorization “essential to any bipartisan conference agreement.”

·      The California drought. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., warned that House drought provisions would “damage the largest estuary on the West Cost” and “favor one region of our state at expense of another.” Rep. Jared Huffman, another California Democrat, called the House provisions “the same overreaching, anti-environment, anti-salmon proposals” from years past and said they would “end a century of federal deference to state water law.”

·      The ethanol-promoting Renewable Fuel Standard. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said it’s time for new energy policy that “recognizes our abundant energy resources” and eliminates the RFS mandate which he said “fails to deliver any measurable benefit to our climate or to our energy security.” ·     

Despite such differences, Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Senate Energy Committee’s top Democrat, concluded that “this country is experiencing a very dramatic transformation in energy, and so we need to make sure that we are updating the policies at the national level to help that transformation continue to take place.” For her, the “transformation” must include a greater role for renewables in the nation’s energy mix.

House Energy Committee Chair Upton stated the case differently. “Many policies based on energy scarcity are simply no longer appropriate, and efforts to expand the nation’s energy infrastructure have run up against old permitting regimes that are not up to the task,” he explained. So for Upton and other Republicans, the priority is unleashing the new oil and natural gas resources made available through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – not transitioning away from fossil fuels toward renewables.


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