Outlook grim for Democrats’ energy bill wish list

Source: By Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Senate Democrats are facing a number of procedural and substantive challenges in their efforts to add building codes, clean energy tax credits and a crackdown on superpolluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to the energy bill currently on the floor.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to push for all three policies at the outset of this week’s debate on the bipartisan energy bill assembled by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

“Democrats want amendments to the energy bill so we can make real progress on climate change,” Schumer said Monday. “That’s what we’re hoping to achieve this week.”

Schumer said, “Few pieces of legislation offer more opportunity for progress on climate than those that concern our energy policy. We cannot miss this opportunity to make real, substantive progress on climate change.”

Manchin told E&E News yesterday to expect votes on the building codes provisions and clean energy taxes. Supporters of the bill to limit HFCs continued yesterday to press for a vote on that measure, as well.

While Schumer has challenged Republicans to make good on their shift on climate change in recent months by supporting the amendments, both the building codes and HFCs measures enjoy bipartisan support.

Building codes

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are expected to offer an amendment to restore the building code provisions from their energy efficiency bill, S. 2137 (E&E Daily, Feb. 12).

“We know that one of the most effective ways to ensure that a homeowner’s energy bills are affordable is to build a home that is more energy efficient to begin with,” Portman said on the Senate floor Monday night regarding the codes, which he noted are voluntary.

But the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is strongly opposed to the provisions. NAHB CEO Jerry Howard told E&E News this week that the federal government should stay out of state and local housing matters.

The provisions in the Portman-Shaheen bill “will absolutely increase the cost of housing,” Howard said, adding that he was confident that the amendment will fail.

NAHB was among a number of construction and real estate interests that wrote to Senate leadership yesterday in opposition to the upcoming amendment.

But supporters of the voluntary building codes strongly reject the arguments put forth by the homebuilders.

“This argument about affordability is a red herring,” wrote Ben Evans, the Alliance to Save Energy’s vice president of government affairs and communications, in an email yesterday.

“The facts clearly show that better building energy codes make home ownership more affordable,” Evans said. “Yes there is an upfront cost, but the energy savings more than make up for it, usually in a matter of months and then there are decades of savings. We’re talking about net savings of thousands of dollars.”

Shaheen said yesterday it was unclear what the vote threshold for the codes amendment would be. If the Senate parliamentarian rules that it’s not “germane” to the underlying bill, then the amendment would need 60 votes to be adopted. If it’s ruled germane, that threshold falls to 51.

Because the codes provision passed through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee with the rest of the efficiency legislation, Shaheen wondered why there was any question about its relevance to the underlying energy bill. “I think it’s politics,” she told reporters.

Murkowski said she agreed that the building codes are germane to the energy package but added, “I’m not the parliamentarian.”

Clean energy taxes

Democrats also face procedural hurdles on the sweeping clean energy tax amendment filed yesterday by Finance ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The amendment addresses a host of top Democratic tax priorities, according to a summary. It would:

  • Raise the per-manufacturer cap on electric vehicles.
  • Extend the renewable productions and investment tax credits that are currently scheduled to phase out.
  • Create credits for energy storage, offshore wind and other technologies.
  • Permanently extend a deduction for efficient commercial buildings.
  • Tweak existing efficiency tax breaks for new homes.
  • Extend master-limited tax treatment currently enjoyed by fossil fuels to renewable projects.

Republicans are resisting the amendment, which they note runs afoul of the Constitution’s requirement that revenue measures originate in the House.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) disputed the “origination” issue, noting that Senate Republicans could simply swap the text into a House-passed revenue bill as a shell.

“There’s really no technical problem,” she told reporters yesterday, accusing Republicans of not wanting to “move ahead” with the bill.

Murkowski said the tax amendment would likely be subject to a budget point of order, which would essentially kill it.

Stabenow acknowledged that Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to adopt the tax amendment but said there are ongoing discussions with Murkowski about setting up “something down the road.” Stabenow called it important to put the Senate on the record on clean energy taxes now.

“We want to make it very clear,” she said, “this is critically important for us in terms of the climate crisis and moving forward on the technology that’s needed. So we’ve insisted on having a vote even if it’s not successful this time around.”

HFCs

Supporters of the bipartisan HFCs legislation, S. 2754, are struggling to secure a vote on that bill, which would authorize a phase-down of the heat-trapping gases.

Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) was unsatisfied with a compromise offered by ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) that would have addressed concerns about state regulation of HFCs (E&E Daily, March 3).

Carper said yesterday that Republicans “are trying to fix a problem that I don’t believe really exists,” given that major refrigerant manufacturers support the bill as written.

Carper said he’s still planning to talk to Barrasso about the bill but said he favors getting the existing proposal “through the process” and addressing state preemption later if it’s still an issue.

“Later on if we need to revisit the issue of preemption, we can do that,” Carper told reporters. “Nobody was asking until now. None of the interest groups, none of the folks who make this stuff or sell this stuff — which is good stuff! — are asking for this.”

Two industry groups — the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Extruded Polystyrene Foam Association — both raised concerns about possible state regulation this week. A coalition of public health groups also called on senators this week to support the measure as is.

Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, the lead Republican sponsor of the bill, said he understands Barrasso’s perspective but that objections are coming from a “very, very small group of people.”

“That’s why God made roll call votes,” Kennedy told reporters. “If he doesn’t like the bill, he should vote against it.”

House outlook

House Democrats are keen on the building codes and HFCs provisions, and the Ways and Means Committee is expected to mark up a broad clean energy tax package in the coming weeks (E&E Daily, Jan. 31).

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters yesterday that House Democrats aren’t planning to take up the Senate energy bill if it does pass.

Instead, he suggested some of the Senate’s ideas would be folded into major climate legislation Democrats are hoping to move in the coming months after a report comes out at the end of March from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

“When and if the Senate sends us a bill, certainly that will be considered in the process. My point is we are going to have a major bill of our own, and then we can go to conference on it,” Hoyer said.

Reporters Nick Sobczyk and George Cahlink contributed.