Energy bill sails through subcommittee, but tough talks loom

Source: Hannah Northey and Daniel Bush, E&E reporters • Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2015

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee unanimously approved a comprehensive energy bill today, making clear the stripped-down measure will serve as a vehicle for policy riders down the road.

In a voice vote, the Energy and Power Subcommittee advanced the legislation that its sponsors say would modernize energy infrastructure, boost energy jobs, and address security, diplomacy, efficiency and accountability.

Committee leaders quickly noted a broader energy package is in the works. That is likely to trigger tough negotiations over the fate of fossil fuels and renewables in U.S. energy markets, potential changes in infrastructure oversight, and whether and how the country should export domestic oil and gas (see related story).

Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said his committee will work on a larger energy package after the August recess. He said Republicans are keen on including provisions for liquefied natural gas and oil exports, more predictable permitting rules for cross-border energy infrastructure, provisions on electric reliability and wholesale power markets, and hydropower reform and efficiency.

“Working on many of these remaining issues will be challenging, but this markup helps move this process forward to form a bipartisan foundation for some of the tough decisions ahead,” Upton said.

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, said language added to the bill would need to have bipartisan consensus. While nothing’s off the table, he said, he hopes Republicans won’t tack on controversial provisions.

“We’re encouraging everyone to come forward with what they would like to address, and then we’re going to see if we can come to a consensus,” he said.

Whether or not lifting a decades-old ban on exporting crude oil will land in the final package is unclear. Another wild card is whether U.S. EPA’s release of its Clean Power Plan in August — before negotiations begin again — will affect the panel’s focus.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) noted that Democrats on the committee had fought to keep out language that would lift a decades-old ban on crude oil exports. He added that he’d continue to build support for a stand-alone bill he introduced earlier this year that would lift the ban.

So far, more than 106 House members have signed onto the bill, H.R. 702, including 11 Democrats.

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), who is helping Barton build support for the bill, said that they would like to include it in the broader energy package but are moving forward with plans to bring the stand-alone bill to the floor when lawmakers return from their August recess.

“Our hope is to have it on the floor in September,” Flores said in a brief, post-hearing interview. “We’re working it pretty hard. It depends on how quickly we sign members up.”

Still, Barton noted that previous efforts to lift the ban have failed to gain traction in the past. Barton said he tried to include a crude exports provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, when he was serving as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, but couldn’t drum up enough votes.

Things could be different this time around, however, as political momentum to lift the ban grows in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, which would allow Iran to restart its oil exports industry. At the hearing, Republicans argued that if Iran is allowed to export crude oil, the United States should, as well.

“I’m concerned that the longer we wait to repeal this ban the more we risk losing American jobs,” said Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.

Baking up a wish list

The bulk of the markup served as a platform for Republicans and Democrats to outline their wish lists for the policy items they’d like to see in a final bill.

Issues like fast-tracking federal approvals of applications to export domestic gas appeared to have bipartisan support.

Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) bemoaned the fact that language addressing LNG exports in an earlier version of the bill was scrapped. A prior iteration of the measure would have, among other things, required the Energy Department to make a final decision on LNG export applications within 30 days of completion of National Environmental Policy Act review requirements (Greenwire, May 19).

Green also said he hopes to see a return of language that aims to coordinate cross-border energy infrastructure projects with Canada and Mexico and language that was stripped that would have obviated the need for a presidential permit to construct liquid and natural gas pipelines, as well as electric transmission facilities that cross U.S. borders.

Other issues appeared to be more partisan.

A host of Democrats called for language in the final package that bolsters energy efficiency and renewables, streamlines hydropower licensing and cuts greenhouse gas emissions. Those are mirrored concerns that groups like the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Earthjustice outlined in letters to House members in recent days.

Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Energy and Power Subcommittee, said the bill is an “improvement” from the original measure but more work needs to be done on efficiency and other areas.

Rush also told his colleagues that the legislative process reminded him of something his grandmother said as she baked cakes.

“It smells good,” he said, “but it ain’t done.”