Energy Bill Conference to Begin, but Tough Road Seen Ahead

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By Ari Natter

Sept. 2 — Is biomass an environmentally friendly energy source?

That’s one of the many questions energy bill conferees will face as they begin the formal process of slogging through the myriad differences between the House and Senate bills.

The Senate bill contains language deeming power produced by biomass such as wood as a carbon-neutral renewable energy source, while the House bill doesn’t address the issue.

The language, backed by the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group that represents companies such as Deltic Timber Corp. and Resolute Forest Products, is opposed by some environmentalists in a fight reminiscent of ethanol’s role in addressing climate change.

“It has implications for state renewable energy programs. It has implications for the Clean Power Plan,” Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s director of climate policy, told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “It essentially means you can count that source of power as a zero for carbon emissions.”

With time running short, and election year politics in full swing, that’s just one of the issues House and Senate negotiators will need to reach agreement on.

Other divisive issues include whether to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the management of federal forests, and how to deal with California’s drought.

“They will have plenty to argue about, I’m sure of that,” said Jeff Bingaman, the former New Mexico senator and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who played a major role in the enactment of broad energy legislation in 2005, which also happens to be the last time Congress held a formal conference on an energy bill.

Even areas where the two chambers align on policy issues—such as the speeding the Energy Department’s approval process for natural gas exports—minor differences remain that need to be worked out. The House bill, for instance, sets a 30-day time line for the department to approve license applications after the completion of an environmental review, while the Senate bill give the agency 45 days.

Backroom Compromise

The first conference committee on the legislation (S. 2012), scheduled for Sept. 8, will feature opening statements, but no amendments or bill text will be considered, according to a meeting notice.

Still, most of the action likely will be worked out by the bill’s principal authors, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the respective chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“It has to be done by a relatively small group of people as a logistical matter,” said Bingaman, who chaired the Senate Energy Committee from from 2001-2002, and again from 2007 until the end of his term in 2013. He said that for the Energy and Policy Act of 2005, the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate committee worked out a compromise bill and then put that before the conferees for a vote.

“I’m sure it’s different every time, but that’s not an unusual approach,” Bingaman said.

Those following the bill, such as Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a Washington nonprofit, said a short congressional session and the fact it is an election year are among the factors that make reaching a compromise on the bill an uphill climb.

60 Percent Odds of Passage Seen

“All of those factors will put them at a disadvantage at this point,” Pyle said in an interview. “Time is their enemy.”

Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners puts the odds that Congress will pass the legislation during the lame duck session of Congress at 60 percent, Kevin Book, the consulting firm’s managing director, told Bloomberg BNA.

“This is a doable bill,” Book said, adding he thought conferees would ultimately decide to drop some of the more contentious provisions. “We still see room for real consensus.”

The legislation would promote cybersecurity of the bulk-power system and streamline licensing for hydropower projects. It also would authorize funding for measures to increase energy conservation in the federal data centers, establish voluntary national model building codes, and boost energy efficiency in the manufacturing and commercial sectors.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com; Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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