WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 2016 - The first major test of whether Donald Trump’s election will increase support for coal, oil and natural gas at the expense of renewables like ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and solar energy could be how the lame-duck Congress handles the comprehensive energy bill being considered by a House/Senate conference committee.
Negotiations that began last week on writing the joint energy bill are continuing this week despite Congress taking the week off for Thanksgiving. Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, says she hopes that “the same good faith negotiations that have gone on will put us in a position so that when we return after Thanksgiving, we will be able to move forward.”
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, R-Mich., is also expressing optimism about passing an energy bill in the lame-duck session, despite earlier doubts. Upton said that although Congress will need to act quickly during the abbreviated lame duck set to end Dec. 16, “I think there is an opportunity to move a bill.” The challenge is to agree on a new bill that reconciles the Senate’s more bipartisan 798-page S. 2012 with the House’s more fossil-fuel-focused 792-page H.R. 8.
In part, the opportunity to finalize the energy bill was created by Murkowski’s persistence. “I think that we’re going to get an energy bill signed,” she said. “I’ve been working toward it for two years. I’m not going to give up in the last few weeks.”
Another factor has been the Senate’s offer to compromise by replacing its controversial permanent reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund with a multiyear extension, as well as House-requested reform provisions. The House responded with its own compromise on Friday, unexpectedly withdrawing its insistence on accelerating U.S. liquefied natural gas exports.
A third factor is political. With a Democrat as president, whether Barack Obama or potentially Hillary Clinton, Republicans in Congress were pushing for legislation to achieve their goals of increasing fossil fuels production, use and exports. But with Donald J. Trump becoming the 45th president on Jan. 20, Republicans can relax, confident that he will carry out his president-elect promises. These include the following commitment: “Rather than continuing the current path to undermine and block America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters.” He’s also promising that the next White House will “streamline the permitting process for all energy projects.”
Presumably Trump’s streamlining would include authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama blocked last year and supporting the currently blocked Dakota Access pipeline.
Confirming his commitments, on Monday Trump said in a transition team video on his new “Great Again” website that as part of a list of “executive actions we can take on day one,” he “will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal.”
The Trump commitments are in sharp contrast with the Obama administration’s new regulations to limit onshore oil and gas drilling operations and its new five-year oil and natural gas leasing plan announced Friday. The Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program blocks new Arctic Ocean drilling through 2022, adding to earlier actions preventing proposed Atlantic Coast lease sales.
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, charges that Obama’s new offshore drilling rules ignore “pleas from generals, national security experts and Native Alaskan communities for responsible energy development” and “will chart a path of energy dependency for decades to come.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., warns that “to exclude the resource-rich Arctic from exploration possibilities squanders our ability to harness the abundant, affordable energy sources that power our economy.” He says Republicans “will work to overturn this plan, and to open up the Arctic and other offshore areas for development.”
Committed to reversing the Obama administration’s new limits on fossil fuels production, Bishop and Upton say their energy bill counter-offer to the Senate “reflects policies that represent the current bipartisan consensus in the House” and that they “welcome any suggestions from the Senate and remain open to continuing to work with our Senate colleagues and concluding this conference in a productive manner.”
But both Republicans and Democrats are calculating possible Senate votes carefully now that Republicans have a slightly smaller Senate majority – either 52-48 or 51-49, depending on the uncertain outcome of Louisiana’s Dec. 10 Senate runoff election. Except for budget reconciliation measures requiring only simple majorities for Senate passage, most legislation will require a 60-vote Senate super-majority to pass. Even in cases where there are no GOP defections, legislative success might require support from as many as eight or nine Democrats. As an example of possible problems ahead, if proposed legislation is seen as hurting wind energy or biofuels, GOP senators like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Colorado’s Cory Gardner would be likely to cross party lines.
How tough it can be to pass fossil-fuels-friendly legislation was demonstrated last Thursday. The Senate divided along party lines to reject a bill to give coastal states a greater share of federal offshore drilling revenues. The 51-47 vote on the American Energy and Conservation Act, S. 3110, sponsored by Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, fell far below the 60 votes needed for passage.
Cassidy originally proposed his revenue-sharing bill as part of the Senate’s comprehensive energy bill but agreed to have it voted on separately to gain Senate Democrats’ support for the larger S. 2012 bill. In debate on Cassidy’s bill, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., charged: “This bill is about one thing and one thing only: another giveaway to big oil. It’s about paving the way for oil drilling up and down the Atlantic Coast. It’s about expanding drilling in the Gulf, even as those communities work to recover from the BP disaster.”
In a veto threat response to Cassidy’s bill, the White House warned that increasing coastal states’ share of offshore oil revenues “would ultimately reduce the fair return on the development of these minerals to taxpayers across the country for their shared resources, would result in reductions of billions of dollars in deposits to the Treasury, and would add significantly to the federal deficit.”
Given such sharp differences over energy development issues, observers close to the current House/Senate energy bill negotiations tell Agri-Pulse that “details of the bill are being kept close,” and that while passing the comprehensive energy bill this year remains possible, any final compromise bill is likely to be a very slimmed down version of the original House and Senate versions. So, if the most contentious issues are shelved, 2017 is likely to include ongoing battles over energy, with the new administration seeking to carry out Trump’s fossil-fuel promises while Democrats try to preserve as much support as possible for renewable energy and for combating climate change.
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