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Energy: Focused Bills More Likely To Clear Congress

by Jeff Johnson
January 24, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

In the energy arena, the combination of an election year and an extremely partisan Congress will present ample opportunities for oversight hearings and the introduction of legislation. But it is likely to doom passage of actual energy bills. Crafting a successful law calls for compromise, statesmanship, and willingness to put aside partisan differences—all of which are in short supply in this Congress.

That said, as in years past, House and Senate leadership have again discussed broad energy bills.

In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and top House Republicans early this month resurrected discussion of a sweeping energy and transportation bill—called the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act—pushed by the same Republicans last year. However, they’ve yet to introduce the actual bill or provide specific details of what it will contain.

“In the coming weeks and months, the House will take action on the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, which will link expanded American energy production to high-priority infrastructure projects like roads and bridges in order to create more jobs,” Boehner said, as he left for a Latin American trade visit on Jan. 9.

The timing of “weeks and months” was identical to Boehner’s statements last November when he discussed the same bill. To date, the speaker’s office staff has provided only a conceptual description with such a heavy emphasis on fossil-fuel development that it is unlikely to gain traction with Democrats in the House or Senate.

According to the conceptual description, the bill would open portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, promote oil shale development and technological R&D, and require President Barack Obama to lease offshore oil and gas lands. It would use federal income generated through these oil and gas leases to improve bridge and highway infrastructure and would block spending of these funds for nonhighway transportation issues.

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he is considering energy legislation too, possibly in the summer, but he has presented no details other than saying that any such energy bill must encourage jobs and development of clean energy.

Several experts in and out of Congress say it is more likely that small, tightly focused bills could clear Congress this year.

Focused energy legislation could include proposals to modernize and secure the electricity grid as well as to encourage and support energy efficiency in homes and industry. More than a dozen such bills have been proposed that address these issues, but an agenda for their introduction and movement has not been put forth.

Another source of energy-related action is expected to come from the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, led by Sen. Jeff Bingaman Jr. (D-N.M.), who will retire at the end of his term later this year. The committee, however, is just now putting together an agenda for the upcoming year, says Bill Wicker, committee communications director. Topping the probable committee activity will likely be action on legislation Bingaman intends to introduce that would require utilities to generate a portion of their electricity from clean energy sources, thus limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

For years, Bingaman has supported such a bill, and he is expected to try again to move it in his final year in the Senate. Clean energy sources targeted in the legislation could include wind and solar, as well as nuclear and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration systems. Bingaman is considering several options that derive from a study by the Energy Information Administration as the base for his plan. In any case, the resulting legislation is expected to include a CO2 trading scheme.

Beyond his yet-to-be introduced bill, Bing­aman’s committee last year cleared nearly 20 stand-alone energy bills, Wicker notes, but Reid has brought none of them before the full Senate. A push to bring at least some of these to the Senate floor is likely.

In the Republican-controlled House, the investigation of the support of clean energy by the Department of Energy and other parts of the Obama Administration will continue.

The investigation has put a spotlight on programs that support renewable energy, and key among these investigations has been the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s examination of the failed loan guarantee to solar energy company Solyndra. On Jan. 9, Rep. Cliff B. Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, again criticized the Administration for not supplying all of the documents related to Solyndra that were subpoenaed by committee Republicans.

House Republicans also say they will up the pressure on Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring heavy crude oil from tar sand production sites in Canada to U.S. refineries. Environmental activists and many Democrats oppose the pipeline because of greenhouse gases emitted from tar sand oil production and possible environmental damage from pipeline leaks, but it is strongly supported by Republicans and their business allies, particularly in the petroleum industry.

Provisions added by Republicans last month to a tax bill gave Obama until Feb. 21 to decide the fate of the oil pipeline; the decision came on Jan. 18 (see page 21). Republicans call this a jobs issue and are mounting a campaign for the pipeline. They have promised congressional hearings, legislation, and more anti-Obama publicity should the pipeline not be approved.

PARTY SPLIT… but Democrats hold a slight majority in the Senate.
A visual representation of the partisan breakdown in the two houses of the U.S. Congress. The house has 192 Democrats and 242 Republicans, and one vacancy. The Senate has 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and two Independants that caucus with the Democrats.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House …


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