WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2017 - Don’t count on Congress launching a second push to pass the comprehensive energy bill that died just short of the finish line last year.
Led by the House and learning from last year’s failed effort, Congress instead has already begun passing narrowly targeted bills aimed at fixing specific energy and environmental problems.
According to energy policy insiders interviewed by Agri-Pulse, a key sign of this new approach’s success is that the House has already passed and sent to the Senate a series of bipartisan Energy Committee bills. A key reason to expect more of the same is that this
type of targeted legislation can “fly under the radar,” avoiding the highly partisan flak triggered by any attempt to pass major legislation. To mix metaphors, lots of little pigs can slip under the fence while the big hogs get slaughtered.
One House staff member said that instead of committing to a single legislative vehicle, the plan is to use a targeted approach with multiple smaller bills that recognizes the need for bipartisan support in the Senate.
Another staffer sees broad agreement in the House that “we’re looking more to pass targeted, individual bills solving discrete problems in discrete areas rather than one big package.” But, warning about partisan differences, he said Democrats want “actual energy infrastructure, not de-regulation, not permit streamlining, but actual money for things like an advanced grid, for repairing pipelines, and for things that are actual concrete and steel. The actual improvements that create jobs.”
The House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee’s new chairman, Greg Walden, R-Ore., explained the new approach in a speech to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) last week. Promising a sharp break from “the Obama administration’s Washington-centric regulatory and environmental agenda,” he insisted that “it’s past time for the federal government to stop picking winners and losers, putting the reliability of our energy supplies at risk, and driving up costs for consumers.” He also promised to “seek ways to ensure consumers continue to receive affordable, reliable, safe, and secure energy,” to “reverse recent efforts by the EPA to erode the states’ authority through the Clean Power Plan,” and to “remove barriers to innovation that current regulations may cause.”
Singling out biofuels, Walden said his committee will “pursue targeted reforms to the Clean Air Act” to include reviewing “transportation fuels, efficiency standards, and the renewable fuel mandate.”
On the environmental front, Walden promised a state-led “bottom-up process, rather than dictating terms from Washington.” He said his committee wants “to put the power to protect the environment back with the states, whose citizens are more accountable to local environmental and mitigation efforts than far-off bureaucrats in Washington.”
Walden said his committee is “primed to help usher in a new era of American ingenuity that capitalizes on our energy abundance.” To fellow Republicans this course change simply means taking the common-sense approach of maximizing U.S. oil, natural gas and coal production. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., said in E&C’s “Modernizing Energy” hearing last week that the U.S. must place higher value on coal and its baseload reliability “after eight years of a war on coal.”
To many Democrats, Walden’s “new era” would reverse course and squander the gains already made by biofuels, wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. To these Democrats, much of the credit for today’s low gasoline, natural gas, coal, and electricity prices should go to renewables creating new supplies and free-market competition. In this view, any return to favoring fossil fuels would guarantee a return to higher and more volatile energy prices.
Walden says he’s confident that former E&C Chair Fred Upton, R-Mich., now chairing the committee’s Energy subcommittee, and John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairing the Environment subcommittee, will “guide major legislation through our committee and into law.” He said that “Under Fred and John’s leadership, we will focus our early efforts on energy infrastructure improvement and expansion. We will also work to bring greater transparency, accountability and predictability to the nation’s environmental laws.”
To make this happen, the two subcommittees held back-to-back hearings last week titled “Modernizing Energy and Electricity Delivery Systems” and “Modernizing Environmental Laws.” Walden said that the two hearings’ common goal “is to identify what steps are necessary to responsibly reduce the barriers to a more productive U.S. economy and then to develop targeted legislative reforms that will provide for this economic expansion and create good paying jobs.”
Walden called for updating the Clean Air Act, last amended in 1990, to refocus resources “on clean-up efforts rather than courtroom brawls and bureaucratic bungling.” He pointed to “enormous opportunities to make meaningful improvements in our environmental laws and regulations.”
In the hearings, E&C ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., explained that “Democrats strongly support modernizing our energy infrastructure, much of which is either outdated, on the verge of disrepair, or inadequate to today’s needs.” But he also warned that “this can’t just become a package of deregulatory measures, tax giveaways to corporations and fake investments.”
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Following the hearings, Pallone told Agri-Pulse that in response to last year’s failure to pass a comprehensive energy bill, this year “we are likely to see more targeted approaches like the bills already sent to the Senate.” He explained that “comprehensive energy bills are complex and take a great deal of time even in the best of circumstances.” So, while major legislation remains a possibility, he said the House Energy Committee’s focus now is on taking smaller bites, such as enacting what the committee considered last week: “an energy infrastructure package that invests in our electricity grid and pipeline modernization.”
Energy Subcommittee chair Upton also sees a pressing need for infrastructure upgrades. “We’re blessed to have the world’s most highly developed energy infrastructure,” Upton said in the Modernizing Energy hearing, “but our systems are aging and we’re confronting new challenges with the changing energy landscape.” He said at a time of “accelerated retirements of coal-fired power plants,” the surge in oil and gas production “has been a boon to the economy, but it has also revealed bottlenecks and capacity constraints in our pipeline system.”
Upton added that “the growing penetration of renewables like wind and solar and distributed energy” has created both opportunities and challenges, including the need for “integrating these resources into the changing grid.”
Highlighting renewable energy’s benefits and “new challenges including climate change,” Pallone concluded, “Most of us can agree that our country’s energy infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Yet, the most important question today is not whether we invest in our infrastructure, but what types of infrastructure we prioritize.”