Hill eyes fresh look at Obama-era clean energy standard

Source: Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 22, 2019

The fervor surrounding Democrats’ Green New Deal is rekindling congressional interest in a national clean electricity mandate, a top Senate Republican staffer told a renewable energy conference today.

Legislation to establish a clean energy standard is being drafted, Kellie Donnelly, the chief counsel for Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said during a panel discussion at the American Council on Renewable Energy policy conference in Washington, D.C.

She did not identify the sponsors but said she expects the bill to be a topic of discussion at a follow-up climate change hearing that the committee is planning for April.

“We are starting to talk more about the clean energy standard again, and I think it absolutely will be part of the conversation,” Donnelly told the conference.

It’s been largely absent from the congressional energy debate in recent years, but a clean electricity mandate was a major focus of Democrats when they controlled both chambers of Congress a decade ago.

The Waxman-Markey comprehensive climate bill that passed the House in 2009 included a renewable energy standard (RES) mandating that 20 percent of U.S. electricity be produced from renewables by 2020. A broad energy bill that passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that year with bipartisan support set the standard at 15 percent by 2021, but a leadership plan to join it with climate legislation on the floor never materialized.

In 2011, President Obama shifted the debate by proposing in his State of the Union address a national clean energy standard (CES) of 80 percent by 2035, with the list of qualifying energy sources broadened to include nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. That was an overture to congressional Republicans, who were skeptical of Democrats’ all-renewable mandate.

Donnelly noted that Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the committee at the time, received more than 200 submissions to a white paper they released about how to structure Obama’s proposal, but the two parties were too far apart to agree on a bill.

“At the end of the day, we weren’t able to get there at the staff level,” she said. “This is a different Congress, these are different members, and so I very much expect it to be part of the conversation.”

Donnelly said she had not seen the bill being drafted but said it may mirror Obama’s 80 percent requirement. She was unaware of the bill’s deadline for meeting the requirement.

“I’ll be interested to see how they deal with some of the issues that are associated with the CES, including what are the timetables and targets and what are the resources that qualify and what are the ones that don’t,” she said. “How do you deal with existing state programs? Who runs the programs — is it DOE, or is it FERC? It’s pretty complicated.”

The Senate last voted on a national electricity mandate in 2015, when Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) offered an amendment to legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would have established a federal RES of 25 percent by 2025. Udall’s bid failed 45-53.

The prospect of a CES was welcomed by other panelists this morning, who said it would be an effective mechanism for reducing carbon emissions.

“A CES done right could do more for deep decarbonization and deployment of renewables than carbon regulation,” said Sarah Webster, vice president for investor relations, government relations and corporate communication for Pattern Energy Group Inc., a U.S.-based firm focused on wind, solar, transmission, storage and advanced energy projects. “So I think it’s something that has to be on the table if we’re intellectually being honest about the challenges we’re facing and the tools we have in the toolkit to address them.”

‘Refresh’ energy reform

Donnelly also reiterated that current Energy Chairwoman Murkowski wants to update the bipartisan energy package that passed the Senate four years ago only to die in conference talks at the end of the session.

“The boss wants to refresh it,” Donnelly said of the original package, parts of which have been enacted through other means, including the broad public lands package that President Trump signed earlier this month, as well as water infrastructure and omnibus spending bills.

“So we’re going through it right now to see what remains,” she said, noting a revamped package will have to move through the committee via regular order, given new members who weren’t around during the drafting of earlier versions. Donnelly said it was possible the bill could be broken into smaller bills that move separately.

Murkowski last month said she hoped to capitalize on the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation that sent the lands package to Trump’s desk to revive energy reform efforts (Greenwire, Feb. 13).

Donnelly said today Murkowski plans to meet soon with her House counterparts to discuss the efforts.