By Rich Heidorn Jr.
House and Senate negotiators met for the first time Thursday in an effort to reach agreement on the first broad energy bill in almost a decade.
The 31 members of the conference committee — seven senators and 24 representatives — are trying to merge the Senate’s bipartisan bill with a House bill rejected by Democrats and the target of veto threats by President Obama.
The session was limited to opening statements from the members and no amendments or bill text were considered. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said 90 staffers have already been working “aggressively,” holding 30 meetings during the summer break, including a dozen in the last week. (See Senate OKs Conference on Energy Bill.)
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened the session on a conciliatory note, saying he was optimistic the conferees could find a “sweet spot” to win bipartisan support and the president’s signature.
“I’m here to listen and to work and to get things done and not take the avenue of sending a bill to the president that he would veto,” said Upton, suggesting he would like the accomplishment before he must relinquish the chairmanship next year because of term limits. “That is not on my list of things to get done.”
Upton noted that the U.S. is no longer “trying to address concerns about energy scarcity, high prices and dependence on imports. Thanks to private sector innovations leading to increased domestic oil and gas output, the script has been flipped, and Congress can now approach energy issues from a position of strength.”
Murkowski and ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who had steered the Senate bill to an 85-12 vote, also expressed optimism in the chances for an agreement. Murkowski is also chairing the conference committee.
The Senate passed its Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S.2012) in April, with support of all but a handful of Republicans. It authorizes increased spending on energy research, improves cybersecurity protections and encourages more efficient buildings and vehicles. It also adds taxpayer protections to the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program and streamlines federal approvals of electric transmission, pipeline, hydropower and LNG facilities. (See Energy Bill Faces Tight Calendar, Partisan Divide in House.)
The House’s Republican-drafted North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act (H.R.8), by contrast, cleared in December with support from only three Democrats.
Getting to the finish line will require members to negotiate agreements on several flashpoints, including tougher energy efficiency standards in building codes and permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The bitterness over the one-sided House bill — evident in the remarks from some members of both parties — has tempered hopes of an agreement.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Energy committee, criticized the House’s “partisan” bill, which he said “would unacceptably increase energy use and costs to consumers, and would undermine our nation’s climate goals.”
“As we begin the process of working to reconcile two very different bills, it is important that any final conference report include three essential components: infrastructure investment and modernization; direct benefits for consumers, including programs that empower them to manage their energy consumption and costs; and it must be consistent with our nation’s climate goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said it was “no small accomplishment to get where we are today” and said he was hopeful the panelists would prove the “conventional wisdom” wrong by reaching agreement. But he warned Democrats not to overplay their hand, saying “do not assume this opportunity will be available next year.”
Others took their two minutes to focus on what they wanted included — or excluded — from the bill.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said eliminating the Senate’s energy efficiency building code language was “critically important.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the Land and Water Conservation Fund authorization is “essential.”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, lobbied for inclusion of House provisions reining in the Energy Department’s research and development efforts. Smith said the department should limit its work to “basic research,” an apparent reference to the controversial loan guarantees to failed companies such as Solyndra.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) pushed back. “To not provide the Department of Energy with resources to invest in smart grid research and development would be akin to not funding the National Institutes of Health to conduct medical cures research,” he said.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) called for increased cybersecurity protections. “The next major event is going to be a cybersecurity event,” he said. “The grid, as we all know, is a target.”
Others called for quicker approval of LNG export facilities, a provision in both bills.
Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa), who proudly declared that his state is now getting 30% of its electricity from wind, said he was “open-minded but … skeptical as well.”
The bill “must deliver benefits to consumers, not just [energy] producers,” he said.