After half a decade in which the energy debate in Washington has been dominated by political posturing and produced almost no legislative action, both Democrats and Republicans who work on energy policy say they’re optimistic about prospects for a number of single-issue energy bills in this Congress.
The hope, they say, is that progress on some smaller-scale bills could restore the trust and relationships needed to build momentum for action on bigger bills.
Signs that something may be breaking loose in the energy deadlock come as members of Congress surprised even themselves last week by reaching bipartisan agreement on a stopgap budget bill absent the dramatic brinksmanship that has, until recently, dominated fiscal debate.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, told National Journal Daily he’s optimistic that, with the bitter politics of the presidential election behind them, lawmakers are now interested in actually passing legislation.
“What’s different now—beyond the fact that elections are a renewal—is that a very significant group of senators are coming up and saying, ‘We’ve just got to find a way to move ahead on energy,’ ” Wyden said. “Energy can’t just be an ongoing polarized bickerfest where everyone sits around and throws rotten fruit at each other.”
There’s a growing urgency among lawmakers to take on energy policy, in particular, since energy—where it comes from, how much it costs, how many jobs it generates—is central to the health of the economy. Also growing is the desire to address the fossil-fuel pollution that contributes to global warming.
Congress last passed a major energy law in 2007, but the provisions of that law don’t do much to address today’s most pressing issues, including high oil prices, greenhouse-gas emissions, and surging energy demand in countries such as China and India.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he’d like to prioritize movement of energy bills in his chamber. And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has become a surprising oasis of bipartisan cooperation. Wyden and the panel’s top Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have developed what both senators call a warm, productive friendship, and the two are focused on forging bills that could gain enough support to pass the Senate with a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.
Wyden and Murkowski have also met in recent weeks with their House counterparts: House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.; his top lieutenant on energy issues, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; and staff from the office of House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Such a meeting may sound like it should be commonplace on Capitol Hill, but participants said they couldn’t recall the last time they’d been in a serious policy meeting with members of both parties and both chambers.
For the past two years, House Republicans have focused on energy chiefly as a political-messaging issue. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has spearheaded those efforts. Before the election, that meant moving a nonstop parade of bills focused on aggressively expanding oil drilling while handcuffing the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. The point, at the time, wasn’t to actually pass legislation (none of the bills had any chance of success in the Senate). It was to create talking points aimed at attacking Democrats running for office—particularly President Obama.
But now that the election is over, McCarthy is taking a different tack. His office has taken pains to point out that the first two energy bills that Republicans brought to the floor this year were not typical GOP “drill, baby, drill” measures; they were renewable energy bills. The intention, McCarthy said, was to send a message that, on this issue, Republicans are prepared to work with Democrats.
“If we lead with something else, like drilling, and were criticized, they wouldn’t listen to the rest of our energy policy,” McCarthy said. “Let’s first enter the places that we’re more united on. You crawl before you walk and you walk before your run. If you start out and build coalitions and build trust on both sides, we can keep doing the harder bills as we grow.”
Leaders in both parties and both chambers are quick to clarify that they don’t expect to see a major energy bill anytime soon—and that even single-issue energy proposals will meet plenty of obstacles. But they pointed to these five proposals as ideas that have legs.
The House has started a bipartisan caucus aimed at passing energy efficiency legislation—bills that would require buildings that provide the same amount of light and heat with less fuel, for example. The leaders of the caucus have serious political chops: Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado has been designated by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to serve as a point man for the GOP on energy issues. Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont is a staunch liberal with close ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. And in the Senate, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio is gaining traction. “People are tired of gridlock,” Gardner told NJ Daily. “You’re starting to see that frustration that members don’t have something to go home and show people. These energy bills are opportunities to show our constituents that we not only talk about it, we bring something home to show for it.”
This issue is gaining traction thanks in part to the retirement of Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman did not oppose offshore drilling, but he did oppose the idea that coastal states should share a portion of the revenue generated by drilling in federal waters. The new Energy chairman, Wyden of Oregon, isn’t a big fan of offshore drilling, but he doesn’t object to proposals that send more money to coastal states. Murkowski, the panel’s ranking Republican, has introduced a bill with Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana that would expand offshore drilling, give coastal states a taste of the profit, and require some of the money to go toward development of renewable energy. The multi-pronged bill is drawing a mix of supporters—and is being taken seriously by leadership on both sides of the aisle.
Nuclear Waste Storage
This is another issue that’s gaining traction thanks to the push of local politics. The nation still has no solution for nuclear waste, which today is kept in temporary storage facilities at nuclear power plants across the country—a situation that’s viewed as dangerous and also expensive. The federal government, by law, was to have taken title to the waste in 1998, and every year that it doesn’t, it pays millions of dollars to nuclear power companies. An old proposal to build a federally run nuclear-waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was killed by Obama and will likely remain on ice as long as Nevadan Harry Reid retains seniority in the Senate. Proposals to build an interim “medium-term” nuclear-waste dump were also stalled until this year, as the most likely site for such a facility is New Mexico. But Bingaman, the New Mexican who chaired Senate Energy and Natural Resources, was not a fan. Now that he’s retired and been replaced by Wyden—whose state has a closed nuclear-power plant that still stores radioactive waste—plans for a “medium-term” nuclear-waste storage dump are suddenly on the move.
For the first time since Obama won the White House in 2008, the top Republican and top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are working collaboratively on a controversial piece of energy policy: the renewable-fuels standard. There’s growing opposition to the provisions of a 2005 law mandating that oil refiners blend an increasing share of plant-based ethanol into the nation’s gasoline mix. Oil companies complain it raises their costs, and the use of corn to produce ethanol has also contributed to rising food prices in the wake of last year’s drought. Meanwhile, the technology to produce ethanol affordably from nonfood crops still isn’t commercialized. Given those pressures, there’s a growing coalition of strange bedfellows—the oil industry, environmentalists, food manufacturers, and antipoverty groups—pushing for the law to be reformed. To that end, Upton and Waxman are working on a series of white papers aimed at opening up the issue for debate and, they hope, legislative action.
In January, House Republicans brought to the floor a bill to speed construction of small hydropower plants in the Pacific Northwest. The bill, sponsored by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, was meant as a signal that the GOP was ready to work with Democrats on at least some form of renewable-energy legislation. It worked. Wyden has introduced a companion measure in the Senate. Members of both parties in both chambers are optimistic about its prospects.
This article appears in the March 26, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.