When it comes to Congress’s fall agenda, it has become harder than ever to follow the bouncing ball. As senators went home for the August recess, the Shaheen-Portman energy savings bill was teed up for debate upon return. Given the pent-up pressure for expression on energy policy, that was looking tough enough for debate managers to handle. But then came Syria, and a number of spending measures. Those priority items threatened to put the only significant energy bill in play on ice. But then President Obama asked lawmakers to postpone a vote on military intervention in Syria while Secretary of State Kerry pursued a diplomatic solution. Thus the Shaheen-Portman bill went to the Senate floor yesterday, for the start of what is expected to be a debate punctuated by multiple interruptions.
In opening the debate, the bill’s sponsors, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH), were joined by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) in statements from the floor stressing the bill’s economic potential and applauding its bipartisan nature. Wyden emphasized support for the bill from major American businesses and business interests, which have recognized its energy efficiency measures for both their cost-savings and job creation properties.
Sen. Murkowski called the Energy Committee one of the most bipartisan and active in the chamber, while lamenting a lack of floor time to complete its work. Indeed, Shaheen-Portman is the first piece of energy legislation to be debated by the Senate since 2007; its provisions include measures to boost building codes, train workers in energy efficient building technologies, help manufacturers become more efficient, and bolster conservation efforts at federal agencies.
However, as Wyden has stated on several occasions, a “pent-up demand” among senators for a wide array of energy initiatives could lead to a high volume of amendments, some of them controversial enough to potentially derail the bill itself. That was evident in the early stages of an open amendment period yesterday. But debate may not happen all at once considering senators will be required to shift from Shaheen-Portman to a Continuing Resolution on the budget, should a draft come out of the House. Not to mention potential disruption from amendments targeted at Obamacare, such as ones filed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). Majority Leader Harry Reid said this morning there “won’t be amendments on [the bill] unless they relate to energy.”
There also doesn’t appear to be agreement on the full scope of amendments to be considered, namely whether to allow amendment votes on contentious side issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and EPA regulation of the power sector. A few that were introduced yesterday:
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) would require federal employees to turn off the lights and avoid wasting stand-by power from electronics. In a simiar vein, Sen. Jeff Mekley (D-OR) called for DOE to look at stand-by power standards for electronics, saying “vampire power” accounts for 5% of residential electricity use;
Sen. John Barasso (R-WY) filed two amendments, one to prevent federal agencies from regulating power sector carbon emissions and another preventing the administration from using efficiency legislation to weigh in on the “social cost of carbon”; and
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) called for a coordinating structure across federal and state education departments to increase access to resources for energy retrofits in schools.
If Shaheen-Portman is now getting its well-deserved moment in the Senate spotlight, we’re also seeing some movement on tax issues, though both tax extenders and broader tax code reform will be in similar contention with other priorities on the legislative calendar. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp told his Republican colleagues Tuesday to expect a packed schedule around broader tax reform legislation this month. “We’re definitely going to step up the pace this fall - no doubt about it,” he told reporters after a meeting of GOP tax writers. (For AEE’s tax reform principles, click here.)
The Senate also has several presidential appointments to consider, starting with former Colorado energy regulator Ron Binz to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday. AEE is circulating a letter of support for Binz for sign-on from advanced energy businesses. (Interested firms should contact Tom Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday evening if they wish to participate.) Binz’s nomination will be considered alongside that of Elizabeth M. Robinson to be Under Secretary of Energy and Michael L. Connor to be Deputy Secretary of Interior.
In the Agencies
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power subcommittee, is reportedly preparing to file legislation to limit EPA’s authority to regulate coal-fired power plants. Whitfield told Politico Tuesday that his bill will likely be introduced in response to EPA’s re-proposed emissions standard for new electric generating units, expected to be released by September 20. The legislation is reportedly narrower than a dismantling of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, something GOP lawmakers have threatened. Instead, likely in a move to attract support from coal-state Democrats up for re-election, Whitfield’s bill would set parameters on EPA’s ability to prevent any new coal infrastructure through regulation. A related bill aimed at ensuring greater interagency review of new EPA energy rules, referred to as the Energy Consumer Relief Act, passed the House in early August and on Monday, was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
At the same time, traditional energy industry groups are calling on EPA to consult with stakeholders ahead of promulgating new rules. Politico reports that while the details of the regulation remain confidential prior to release, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is currently examining EPA’s rule, and entertaining visits from a variety of industry and environmental groups. While performance standards for new power plants are currently on the table, regulation of existing generating units by EPA, which comes next, will be more of a factor in pushing the United States toward an advanced energy future.