3rd stimulus may put energy industry aid in play

Source: By Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, March 16, 2020

 Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Photo credit: Tom Brenner/Reuters/Newscom

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) use their elbows to greet each other Friday because of coronavirus concerns. Tom Brenner/Reuters/Newscom

Even before finishing work on the second bill in response to the coronavirus crisis, congressional leaders are working on a third package, which could include energy provisions.

Lawmakers, advocates and aides are also wondering when Congress will be able to take up top priorities this year, including fiscal 2021 spending and climate change legislation.

Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin outlined some items for the third coronavirus response proposal.

“The speaker and I are already in conversations about airlines, which is critical to us, hotels, cruise ships, more [Small Business Administration] lending, more liquidity, some type of stimulus,” Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Democrats last week were reluctant to discuss broader economic relief options, saying they wanted to keep focusing on helping workers and small businesses.

“Helping the American people cope with that crisis, that is job No. 1,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. “We can come back and pass additional targeted measures that deal with other economic problems at a later date.”

Senate Republicans spoke last week of helping oil producers struggling with low prices with government purchases of crude and royalty relief (E&E Daily, March 12).

“For the average American, gas prices are going to be way down,” Mnuchin said Friday morning, leaving the door open to some kind of assistance. “We’re looking at that.”

Just hours later, President Trump announced the government would indeed buy U.S. oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The administration had already put a planned sale on hold.

During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said yesterday that the administration plans to purchase 75 million barrels of oil for the SPR.

Kudlow blamed the price dust-up between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Both nations, Kudlow said, wanted to put U.S. producers “out of business.” “They never will,” he added.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Energy Action Team co-chairs Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) cheered the president’s announcement.

“Not only is it important to purchase this oil while prices are so low, but we also recognize the strategic importance of the SPR from a national security perspective,” said a joint statement.

But how the government will pay for the purchases — through a new appropriation or reprogramming of Department of Energy dollars — remains in question, analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners said over the weekend.

Furthermore, the president’s move is facing blowback from congressional Democrats and environmental groups.

Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, said in a statement, “This action speaks volumes about Trump’s priorities at a moment of national crisis.”

He added, “At a time when millions of Americans could be thrown into economic disaster, Trump is taking decisive action to protect polluter profits.”

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Friday announced legislation, S. 3488, to block the Interior Department from lowering royalties for producers.

Infrastructure, climate

A stimulus could also open the door for more talks on infrastructure, including the Senate’s five-year, $287 billion transportation bill.

Senate Republicans are struggling to pay for about $100 billion of the measure, after deciding to jettison a proposal that would have had large trucks pay a fee per mile traveled (E&E Daily, March 5).

Should a third stimulus be waived from budgeting rules, the highway bill could be tacked on, as well, and avoid the pay-for headache.

But Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) downplayed the option last week. “I’m a conservative. I want things to be paid for,” Barrasso told E&E News.

In the House, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is scheduled to unveil its long-awaited policy report at the end of this month, but a spokesman said the panel is still assessing the schedule and whether it will be delayed.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) suggested last week that the chamber could resume debate on the sidetracked bipartisan energy bill if time opens up. It’s “still kicking around, still in the mix,” he said last week.

Asked about the energy package last week, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) smiled widely. “There’s always an opening,” she told reporters.

King, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he doubted the upper chamber would have a chance to turn to new conservation legislation that would fix ailing national parks and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But he said he hoped the Senate would get to the “Great American Outdoors Act,” S. 3422, as soon as possible.

Vote tonight

The Senate will hold a procedural vote tonight on H.R. 6172, the “USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act,” which pertains to government surveillance and national security.

“The Senate will urgently consider the reauthorization and reform legislation which passed the House with a wide bipartisan majority and is endorsed by the Attorney General,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) in a statement yesterday.

Reporters Kellie Lunney and Nick Sobczyk contributed.