Republicans Go Full Steam at Obama’s Energy and Climate Agenda

Wednesday features Keystone XL vote, attacks on EPA rules and natural-gas plans.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: Members of the United Mine Workers of America rally outside of the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency October 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. The rally was held to protest regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that could impact the nation's coal industry and coal-related jobs.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Feb. 10, 2015, 4:19 p.m.

The en­ergy battle between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and the White House is on.

Wed­nes­day, the House will vote to send le­gis­la­tion man­dat­ing ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline to Obama’s desk, where it awaits his veto pen. A key Sen­ate com­mit­tee is hold­ing a hear­ing in the first step to ac­tion against the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s high-pro­file rules to lim­it green­house gas emis­sions from coal-fired power plants. And En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz will likely be grilled about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s nat­ur­al gas ex­port policies.

Those hear­ings should be fol­lowed by more con­front­a­tion­al ses­sions this month and next with EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy and In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell, whose agency is for­ging ahead with hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing rules that are un­pop­u­lar with Re­pub­lic­ans.

And a top House Re­pub­lic­an just re­leased a broad frame­work for com­pre­hens­ive en­ergy le­gis­la­tion that will likely prompt col­li­sions with Demo­crats.

The de­bates will be far more wide-ran­ging and con­sequen­tial than the Key­stone pipeline is­sue that Re­pub­lic­ans used to start the year. Obama is ex­pec­ted to veto the bill, and the GOP doesn’t have the votes to over­ride. That out­come was ex­pec­ted and the de­bate sym­bol­ic, but the rest of the year will fea­ture GOP at­tempts to beat back en­vir­on­ment­al and cli­mate rules that Obama wants to be part of his leg­acy.

The White House has signaled that Obama won’t sac­ri­fice his big ini­ti­at­ives to cut car­bon emis­sions in the name of for­ging fisc­al deals with Cap­it­ol Hill. But that won’t pre­vent Re­pub­lic­ans from look­ing for open­ings to un­der­mine his agenda.

The Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee will hold its first hear­ing on the EPA’s planned rules for new and ex­ist­ing power plants Wed­nes­day, with Janet Mc­Cabe, EPA’s top air pol­lu­tion of­fi­cial, as the sole wit­ness.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell has already vowed an ef­fort to at­tach pro­vi­sions to spend­ing le­gis­la­tion that block the EPA rules, put­ting him­self on the ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee that handles the agency’s budget.

“I think some of it will fo­cus on ap­pro­pri­ations,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a mem­ber of the GOP’s lead­er­ship team, said of ef­fort to thwart the rules.

“The more people find out about the EPA rules that will in­crease their util­ity bills, the less they will like them, and all those things may come to­geth­er about the time we get to the In­teri­or Ap­pro­pri­ations bill,” Blunt ad­ded, re­fer­ring to spend­ing le­gis­la­tion for EPA and the In­teri­or De­part­ment.

Spend­ing bills are just one op­tion Re­pub­lic­ans have avail­able to them.

They also could seek to use the Con­gres­sion­al Re­view Act, a mid-1990s law that was part of then-Speak­er Newt Gin­grich’s “Con­tract with Amer­ica.” It gives law­makers power to over­turn fi­nal agency reg­u­la­tions, but has been used suc­cess­fully just once. EPA plans to com­plete emis­sions rules for new and ex­ist­ing power plants this sum­mer.

Demo­crats say they’re ready for a fight. “We are pre­pared to pro­tect the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act is clear and it cer­tainly gives not just the au­thor­ity but the ob­lig­a­tion to the ad­min­is­tra­tion to reg­u­late all pol­lut­ants, and car­bon is a pol­lut­ant, so we will look for­ward to that dis­cus­sion,” said Sen. Bri­an Schatz, a Hawaii Demo­crat who is act­ive in cli­mate policy battles.

The com­ing days and weeks will also fea­ture Re­pub­lic­ans and top Cab­in­et of­fi­cials joust­ing in pub­lic. Mon­iz will ap­pear be­fore a House En­ergy and Com­merce pan­el Wed­nes­day and the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee on Thursday to dis­cuss his agency’s budget re­quest.

Mon­iz has a good rap­port with Re­pub­lic­ans — the ad­min­is­tra­tion en­ergy policies that an­ger them the most tend to come from the In­teri­or De­part­ment and EPA, and Mon­iz’s pro-nuc­le­ar and pro-nat­ur­al gas stances are pop­u­lar across the aisle. But he’ll likely still face cri­ti­cism over the pace of his agency’s ap­prov­al of nat­ur­al gas ex­port ap­plic­a­tions, which ad­voc­ates want quickened.

Else­where, House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton on Monday re­leased a wide-ran­ging and short-on-de­tails out­line for po­ten­tial en­ergy le­gis­la­tion.

Up­ton’s frame­work pledges to tackle “per­mit­ting chal­lenges” that thwart de­vel­op­ment of in­fra­struc­ture to mod­ern­ize elec­tri­city sys­tems and make them more se­cure; ef­forts on de­vel­op­ment of an en­ergy work­force that can ad­dress “21st Cen­tury chal­lenges” and in­clude more minor­ity and low-in­come work­ers; pro­vi­sions on en­ergy ex­ports; and pro­vi­sions on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

The doc­u­ment’s neut­ral word­ing is hardly an all-out as­sault on Obama’s policies, and in­deed could con­tain the seeds of agree­ment on some top­ics like ef­fi­ciency.

But it’s also an early sig­nal of policy fights ahead. For in­stance, past GOP ef­forts to speed per­mit­ting have led to White House charges that Re­pub­lic­ans are try­ing to gut en­vir­on­ment­al re­views. Also un­clear is how hard Re­pub­lic­ans might push on eas­ing dec­ades-old bans on crude-oil ex­ports, an area of po­ten­tial col­li­sion with Obama.

And the brief doc­u­ment also prom­ises some clear battles over Obama’s use of the Clean Air Act.

“The com­mit­tee will also ad­dress reg­u­lat­ory over­reach of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, in­clud­ing its power plant rules un­der Sec­tion 111 of the Clear Air Act and re­cent ozone pro­pos­al,” it states.

The House can eas­ily pass meas­ures to thwart EPA’s cli­mate change rules, while the Sen­ate is tough­er ter­rain.

But Re­pub­lic­ans also must grapple with con­flict­ing plans: Fol­low­ing through on ef­forts to re­store nor­mal Sen­ate pro­ced­ures rather than re­vert­ing catch-all spend­ing bills at the el­ev­enth hour, yet also mak­ing good on threats to de­mand lan­guage that thwarts Obama’s cli­mate agenda, which the White House has vowed to pro­tect.

Those fault lines were on dis­play last week when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who heads the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee sub-pan­el that con­trols EPA’s budget, fielded a re­port­er’s ques­tion about Mc­Con­nell’s de­mand for pro­vi­sions that block EPA’s power plant reg­u­la­tions.

Her long, very care­ful an­swer high­lights the bal­an­cing act that the GOP faces. Here’s a por­tion of it:

“It is my in­tent, and I am work­ing with my ap­pro­pri­ations staff — and they know full well what my dir­ect­ive is — and that is, where we are go­ing to be work­ing ag­gress­ively every step of the way [is] to put to­geth­er a bill that is re­spons­ive and is something that we can gain sup­port for pas­sage, not a mes­saging bill, but sup­port for pas­sage,” said Murkowski, who also chairs the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee.

“You are go­ing to have folks that will want to load this par­tic­u­lar bill with a lot of dif­fer­ent clev­er ideas as to ways that they can either make things hap­pen or stop things from hap­pen­ing,” she ad­ded. “And so this is where it is go­ing to take a pretty pa­tient skill set to sift through.”

Bey­ond the spend­ing bill fights, Murkowski also ex­pressed hope that she could find some com­mon ground with Demo­crats on le­gis­la­tion that she wants to move through the En­ergy pan­el, and hopes to hold hear­ings by early spring.

Murkowski is among the cham­ber’s strongest oil-and-gas in­dustry al­lies, and strongly sup­ports open­ing far more areas for drilling off­shore than Obama or most Demo­crats sup­port, among oth­er areas of con­flict. But Murkowski said she held out hope for find­ing com­mon ground with Sen. Maria Can­t­well, the pan­el’s top Demo­crat, cit­ing pos­sib­il­ity for agree­ment on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, nuc­le­ar-waste policy, and pub­lic-lands is­sues.

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