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By Ari Natter
June 17 — Time is running out for Congress to craft the first broad energy policy bill in nearly a decade.
With a seven-week congressional recess set to begin in less than a month and elections in the fall, analysts are casting doubt on lawmakers' ability to beat the clock.
“They are really short of time,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who played a major role in crafting comprehensive energy legislation signed into law in 2005, told Bloomberg BNA. “They made some progress this session, but this is not horseshoes—close doesn’t count.”
The Senate voted to pass its version of the bill (S. 2012) on an 85-12 vote in April, drawing support from Republicans with language to expedite the federal approval process for liquefied natural gas exports and Democrats with measures designed to increase renewable energy development and energy efficiency.
“My hope is the House takes a look at the strong vote over here and we are able get to work early and quickly and get to that place where we have a conference product that we can bring back, finalize and enact good energy policy reforms into law,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said during a jubilant press conference after the bill's passage.
But then, the House voted along party lines to add a slew of bills opposed by the White House and congressional Democrats as part of an 806-page amendment before sending the measure to the Senate.
In addition to incorporating the text of House Republicans' energy bill (H.R. 8), which was already under veto threat from the Obama administration, the amendment added more bills the White House earlier promised to veto, such as legislation expediting the permitting process for mines and a bill dealing with the California drought opposed by the environmental community.
“I want people to realize we have a very worked-through bipartisan bill with dozens and dozens of well-worked-out products and they are starting with something that is just like a bunch of veto threats, so I want some recognition of the imbalance,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee told reporters.
The Senate has yet to vote on a formal motion to go to conference with the House bill. Instead, Murkowski invited Cantwell and key players from the House to an informal meeting where they tried to find common ground for a path forward.
“We haven’t decided anything,” Cantwell said. Another meeting is expected to occur June 22 or June 23. The congressional recess begins July 15.
Meanwhile people like Damian Kunko, a lobbyist who represents the nascent marine and hydrokinetic industry, which seeks to generate power using experimental technologies like wave converters and underwater turbines, are getting worried.
“My glass is half empty and I don’t think there is going to be enough time,” Kunko, who represents the National Hydropower Association and companies such as Siemens subsidiary Dresser-Rand, told Bloomberg BNA.
“I feel like Charlie Brown,” Kunko said. “We get this close to moving something and the football gets yanked away. It's disappointing. We haven’t had an energy policy bill since 2007, and this country needs guidance and leadership to figure out the best path forward for generating energy.”
In addition to authorizing funding for Energy Department marine hydrokinetic research, the Senate bill includes other measures designed to help commercialize marine and hydrokinetic projects, which Murkowski has long championed for use in her coastal state.
Publicly, Cantwell and Murkowski say they still have plenty of time to work out the differences in the House and Senate bills.
“What day is it today? Do you know how many more days are left in the year? A whole bunch,” Murkowski told Bloomberg BNA. “I would like us to certainly be working on things well before we break for the very long recess. That has been my goal, and that will continue to be my goal.”
But speaking in April after the bill passed, Murkowski conceded time constraints would be one of the biggest challenges to getting the bill passed into law.
“One of the concerns that I think we have or the obstacles we have in front of us is time and calendar and the fact that in order to have a conference the House and the Senate have to be in town at the same time,” Murkowski said. “You look at the calendar going forward and we’ve got some work to do there are some keen differences between the House bill land the Senate bill and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Dorgan, the former senator who now serves as a senior policy adviser at the law firm Arent Fox LLP, said it's still conceivable the bill could go to conference and be passed into law, especially by members of Congress anxious to demonstrate “they can make things work from time to time.”
“I think with motivated chairman and ranking member, you could do a conference in a couple of weeks,” Dorgan said. “This is not a 2005 or 2007 big comprehensive bill with big ideas. It's more like an ice cube that’s been passed around. But still it’s very much worth doing.”
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