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Political Scene

Another Stab at Energy Legislation
David Applegate

Throughout his campaign for president, George W. Bush decried the lack of a national energy policy. And shortly after taking office, Vice President Dick Cheney prepared a plan for the new administration. Trouble was, most of the big-ticket items in the plan — tax incentives, electricity deregulation and petroleum development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), to name three — required congressional action.

During the 107th Congress, lawmakers tried, but ultimately failed, to reach agreement on how to transform the president’s proposals — and more than a few of their own — into comprehensive energy legislation. Both the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House passed versions, but they could not work out their differences before heading home to campaign for the mid-term elections last fall.

Well, as a previous president was wont to say, here they go again. With Republicans now in control of both chambers, energy legislation is a top priority of the House and Senate leadership. Conscious of having run out of time in the previous Congress, they are eager to see a final bill crafted this year before presidential campaign politics make compromise all but impossible in 2004. Some of the bones of contention are the same as in the last Congress, but others have taken on a new flavor.

House plays four-part harmony

Reflecting the broad scope of energy issues, four committees worked to craft the House energy bill. And for the most part, they have simply brought back the provisions that they passed last time. Now as then, the Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the lion’s share of the final bill. Provisions cover everything from energy conservation and energy efficiency to development of a natural gas pipeline across Alaska and fuel economy standards; not to mention incentives for hydropower, extension of liability protection for nuclear power plants, development of advanced fuel-cell vehicles and deregulation of the electric utility industry.

The Science Committee’s contributions are quite a bit more focused: authorizing research and development activities — mostly within the Department of Energy. Targeted areas include energy efficiency, renewable energy, fossil energy, nuclear energy (including geological isolation of spent fuel) and fusion energy. The Resources Committee put forward provisions encouraging oil and gas development on public lands, opening ANWR, establishing a royalty-in-kind payment system, and promoting hydropower and geothermal energy development. Finally, the Ways and Means Committee weighed in with $18 billion in tax incentives to encourage energy production, conservation and reliability.

Floor debate on a combined bill (H.R. 6) that contained provisions from all four committees began on April 7 and ended five days later. Unlike the more free-wheeling Senate, where debate can go on indefinitely and the floor amendments can number in the hundreds, the House Rules Committee keeps a tight lock on the number of amendments and length of discussion. Among the few amendments allowed were a pair regarding ANWR that were virtually identical to ones considered when the House approved energy legislation two years ago. The results were the same too. First, the House voted 197 to 228 against an amendment to strip out the ANWR provision. They next voted 226 to 202 in favor of an amendment limiting production facilities in ANWR to 2,000 non-contiguous acres, not including roads, gravel pits or above-ground pipelines. By a final vote of 247 to 175, the House passed the energy bill on April 11.

Climate controversy in the Senate

With its simple majority rule and lack of filibusters, the House tends to act while the Senate deliberates, and energy legislation provides ample fodder for deliberation. At the same time that the House was finishing floor action, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was trying to get a bill through his committee. Because Democrats controlled the Senate during much of the last Congress, the new Republican majority did not simply dust off last year’s Senate-passed bill. Instead, Domenici put forward a new draft that incorporated some elements from the earlier compromise but also provisions drawn from the House bill and new ones altogether.

During committee deliberations, Domenici fended off an effort by Democratic senators from Florida and California to amend a provision calling for a complete inventory of domestic offshore oil and gas production potential. They sought to remove areas off the coast of their states as well as others where drilling moratoria are currently in effect.

A greater challenge for Domenici was a revolt in his own party over how to address climate change, one of the issues that caused negotiations to grind to a halt in the previous Congress. As with the earlier Senate bill — and unlike any of the House bills — Domenici included a section on climate. One provision calls on the president to develop a national strategy to manage the risks posed by potential climate change, including an assessment of “the sensitivity, adaptive capacity and vulnerability of natural and human systems to natural climate variability, climate change, and its potential impacts.” Another would carry out the president’s proposed voluntary program to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions relative to economic input by 2012. Yet another authorizes a carbon sequestration program in the Department of Energy. What set off conservatives, however, was a provision creating a database to track voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Those reductions could later be credited if an emissions reduction program — similar to that currently in place for sulfur emissions from power plants to combat acid rain — was established in the future. Viewing this provision as a backdoor implementation of mandatory emission reductions, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and other committee conservatives indicated that they would offer alternative language.

With revolt brewing, Domenici pulled climate change out of the committee bill with the assumption that it would be addressed during debate on the Senate floor. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already vowed to propose an amendment containing legislation that he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have introduced capping greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity, transportation, industrial and commercial sectors to their 2000 levels by 2010 and down to their 1990 levels by 2016. A series of other climate-related amendments can be expected as well.

The clock is ticking

Following a similar procedure to the House, the Domenici bill will ultimately be combined on the floor with a $15.7 billion tax incentive bill emerging from the Senate Finance Committee and vehicle-emission legislation being prepared by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Climate change is only one of a number of issues that could draw out Senate debate over the combined legislation. Senate Democrats still possess enough votes to sustain a filibuster. The contentious debate in the Senate in contrast to swift action in the House suggests that energy legislation will have a hard time making it through the conference process despite the head start. Crafting a bill that can pass both houses and obtain a presidential signature will take a willingness to compromise on all sides. Whether the will is there remains to be seen.


Applegate is the American Geological Institute’s (AGI) Director of Government Affairs and Editor of Geotimes. E-mail him at: applegate@agiweb.org.

For more, visit the Government Affairs Program Web site.


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