Energy-Bill Talks Could Test Natural Resources Panel

A committee that has been unable to move big-ticket bipartisan legislation may soon get its chance to break that pattern.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and ranking member Raul Grijalva
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Nov. 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

A House Natural Resources Committee that has proven unable to cut bipartisan deals in recent years may soon face another crucial test.

Another stab at large-scale energy legislation could be in the works, the chairman of the panel said Wednesday. But the process is likely to face strong partisan headwinds, similar to those that caused a collapse of energy negotiations last Congress.

The Natural Resources Committee signed off on an energy bill Wednesday that would expand offshore-drilling leases, revise revenue-sharing agreements, and transfer regulatory authority for onshore projects to the states. The bill survived a hail of Democratic criticism and amendments—all of which fell short.

Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, a secondary negotiator in conference last Congress, said the bill could still provide the basis for another cross-Capitol negotiation. The key to success this go-round, he said, is for negotiators to focus strictly on energy issues, rather than the conservation measures included in the negotiations last Congress.

“If you expand it by putting energy and land [conservation] together, it complicates the issues,” Bishop said.

Negotiations in the 114th Congress touched on a broad range of conservation and sportsmen’s policies, most notably the long-term extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

That fund aims to preserve federal lands and waters, such as national parks and wildlife refuges, using revenues generated by offshore oil and gas development. A part of the program is authorized to purchase private land, and Bishop has described it as an example of federal overreach. The current Senate energy bill, which largely reflects its predecessor from the previous Congress, would also extend the fund.

The Energy and Commerce Committee led the negotiations from the House side in the 114th Congress, and the lower chamber’s bill included a broad list of energy measures within that committee’s jurisdiction, including regulatory changes to expedite approvals for natural-gas imports and exports, electric-grid resiliency, and easing of regulations for pipelines.

Bishop’s lead in the negotiations this Congress would breathe new life into the process, but the gap between the two chambers would be even greater. The Senate bill doesn’t include any language to free up onshore and offshore fossil-fuel development. It would, however, speed up liquefied-natural-gas and hydroelectric approvals, while also boosting research on LNG and methane hydrate.

Bishop said he isn’t fazed by the disparities. “It doesn’t matter … how far you are apart at the beginning; it’s how quickly you can reach an agreement. I think that could happen,” he said.

But a conference would put Bishop and ranking member Raul Grijalva at the same table, and the two lawmakers have a woeful track record of brokering bipartisan deals since taking control of the committee in 2015. The two have failed to shepherd a major, bipartisan measure through the committee this Congress.

The top committee Democrat says the Republican ranks are filled with ultraconservatives hell-bent on moving messaging bills with poor prospects of passage. Bishop counters that his members are representatives of Western districts that have closer connections to the committee’s public-lands and energy agenda. Roughly a half-dozen House Freedom Caucus members sit on the committee, and many of the Democratic members represent urban districts in states like Massachusetts and Maryland.

That division makes a bipartisan energy compromise unlikely at best, Grijalva said.

“We’re going to be talking about what we have proposed, accumulating almost all the legislation that Democrats have put in around the issue of energy,” he said. “Some of the stuff in this bill for us is going to be nonstarters.” Republicans shot down amendments sponsored by Grijalva on Wednesday to reauthorize the conservation fund and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Grijalva said Republicans may plan to bring the House bill to the floor next week if tax reform isn’t taken up. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the schedule is so far unclear.

Despite the vast, cross-Capitol differences, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, the would-be lead negotiator on the Senate side, signaled interest in some of the House bill’s provisions.

“They’ve got a revenue-sharing piece in there, and some other things that we’re supportive of,” she said, referring to committee Republicans. “We’re always looking for ways that we can be working with our House colleagues on our energy bill.” Murkowski, along with Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Maria Cantwell, introduced the Senate bill in June. The lawmakers used a procedural tool to sidestep the committee, so the legislation now awaits floor action.

Sen. John Barrasso, a member of Republican leadership, says he wants the legislation to come up soon, but the schedule is currently bogged down with bigger-ticket items such as tax reform and appropriations.

Adding complexity to the debate, Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, opposed the House bill in committee, citing inequity for Gulf states. The House legislation revises revenue-sharing for Atlantic Coast states and Alaska, but leaves the Gulf states alone.

“I can’t explain to people at home how in the world, for example, the state of South Carolina can start producing energy, and in the first billion dollars in energy they produce they get $375 million, yet in the state of Louisiana, we’re going to have to hit approximately $200 billion in revenues for the federal government before we hit our first $375 million. That disparity is ridiculous,” Graves said.

Bishop offered to work with Graves, but he said Graves’ priorities involve budgetary changes that are outside the committee’s jurisdiction. Some East Coast Republicans have also opposed offshore development over tourism concerns, and a whip count on the bill is unclear.

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