Full plate awaits Congress, but election-year concerns likely to stymie progress

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, January 6, 2014

Congress returns today to start a year likely to be marked by potentially monumental shifts atop some key Senate committees and a pair of early budget fights that could signal whether the era of crisis-driven, eleventh-hour deals is truly on its way out. There also will be the usual attention to a sweeping climate and energy agenda driven by President Obama and his administration — with election-year considerations always prominent.

While 2014 is likely to come to an end as the seventh straight year without a wide-reaching new energy law being enacted, the coming debates over must-pass spending and debt ceiling legislation could serve as battlegrounds for smaller skirmishes over policy riders that would rein in U.S. EPA rules, approve the Keystone XL pipeline or eliminate oil industry tax breaks.

Congress has to enact a new spending bill by Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling by mid-February, and if history is any guide, lawmakers are unlikely to score major energy policy victories in exchange for their passage — but that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

Separately, the key House and Senate committees are drawing up their own plans for early this year, even as the upper chamber prepares for a potentially fateful game of musical chairs in the near term.

Obama’s nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to be the next U.S. ambassador to China means he would give up the powerful Finance Committee chairmanship following his all-but-assured confirmation. That is likely to lead Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to give up his post atop the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to take the Finance Committee gavel, leaving Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in a plum spot as Energy chairwoman, where she can promote her home state’s oil industry as she faces a difficult re-election effort. (Landrieu’s slot as chairwoman of the Small Business Committee might also be used to shore up a shaky Democratic incumbent, perhaps Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor.)

Baucus’ impending exit also likely leaves tax reform in limbo for the coming year, although Wyden could draw on some ideas from the outgoing chairman’s radical proposal to replace more than 40 energy-related incentives with a trio of tax credits to promote “clean” fuels, low-emissions electricity, and carbon capture and sequestration.

More pressing, though, will be the fate of more than a dozen temporary breaks, such as the production tax credit, that expired Dec. 31 and that Wyden has said should be renewed posthaste. House Republicans, by contrast, have shown little enthusiasm for dealing with these provisions, known as “tax extenders,” which encompass incentives for industries throughout the economy.

Before the likely gavel handoff, Wyden has business to attend to at the Energy Committee. This month, a spokesman said, he expects to convene a markup of the nuclear waste bill, S. 1240, he introduced last summer with ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The bill would create an independent agency to identify new nuclear waste storage sites and aims to revamp a program that has been stalled for three years following the Obama administration’s closure of the planned Yucca Mountain waste facility (E&ENews PM, Dec. 10, 2013).

Other items on Energy’s agenda include a hearing on Wyden’s bill to address the management of Oregon’s western forests, known as O&C lands, and a hearing on critical minerals. Wyden also continues to work with Senate leadership to bring energy efficiency legislation sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) back to the Senate floor, although timing for that bill remains unclear. The bill was being debated in the fall but became hostage to maneuvering over Obama’s health care law and the eventual government shutdown.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will kick off a potentially stacked agenda with a Jan. 16 hearing on Obama’s Climate Action Plan featuring EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, part of what Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said will be a “whole potpourri of ways” she will advance the climate change discussion. That could include more hearings on climate change or advancing legislation to institute a price on carbon (Greenwire, Dec. 17, 2013).

The committee will also work on chemical safety as negotiations continue on a bipartisan bill from ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) and the late Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would offer the first major update to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Among other topics the committee plans to tackle are oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and EPA’s handling of the renewable fuel standard.

EPW will also have to address a reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which is set to expire in September, as well as continuing to conference a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act with House negotiators.

In the House, environmental regulations will be considered on the floor this week with debate over H.R. 2279, the “Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act,” which would eliminate mandatory deadlines in Superfund and solid waste disposal laws (see related story).

That bill is just the latest to emerge from the Energy and Commerce Committee taking aim at EPA — part of a broader policy Republicans have pursued since taking control of the House three years ago to limit regulations and expand U.S. energy production.

“Our pursuit to build the ‘architecture of abundance’ will continue as well as our efforts to create jobs and protect American families and businesses from overreaching regulations that seek to limit fuel choices and make energy more expensive,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chairs the Energy and Power Subcommittee, said in a statement. “We will begin the year by advancing Chairman [Fred] Upton’s bill to reform the cross-border pipeline permit process and my legislation to ensure that coal remains a viable part of America’s energy mix.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a memo Friday also noted continued efforts by the chairmen of the Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure committees to negotiate with their Senate counterparts on conference reports for the farm bill and a reauthorized water infrastructure law. Both will make their way to the House floor “as soon as they are ready for consideration,” he wrote.

The House Natural Resources Committee also will be a key player in that effort, starting with a hearing this week that is certain to feature Republican lawmakers and witnesses making the case for additional offshore oil drilling (see related story). Another hearing this week will probe an Obama administration effort to rewrite the 2008 stream buffer zone rule, which Republicans characterize as part of its broader “war on coal” (see related story).

Other priorities for the coming year include reforming the Endangered Species Act, reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, expanding hydropower development, and addressing forestry management, Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said last month.

Obama, struggling to overcome sagging poll numbers largely as a result of the health care law, hasn’t said much yet about his specific agenda for 2014. He’s set to deliver his annual State of the Union address Jan. 28.