House Departure Seals Fate of Failed Energy Negotiations

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By Brian Dabbs

Dec. 8 — The departure of House members from Capitol Hill dealt the final blow to hopes for a large energy policy overhaul in the 114th Congress, exacting a fate that most lawmakers and advocates predicted for weeks—if not longer.

House members passed a critical water resources bill Dec. 8 and a continuing resolution to extend federal government spending into April, paving the way for that departure. The night before a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the chamber wouldn’t act on energy this Congress.

Both Republicans and Democrats, along with an industry supporter, waxed upbeat, however, on the prospects of resuming the negotiations and passing an energy package early next Congress.

“I would definitely be supportive of doing a major energy initiative,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told Bloomberg BNA following the House votes. “From the very beginning, I wanted to have an energy bill that had some significant funding to upgrade the electricity grid and also to upgrade improvements for pipelines.”

Pallone, a central player during recent negotiations to strike a last-minute deal, said the overhaul will likely align with President-elect Donald Trump’s calls for major infrastructure boosts. The energy legislation (S. 2012) could have put in place a range of efficiency initiatives, including school, home and commercial building retrofitting as well as cybersecurity improvements.

Gas Export Priority

Provisions to expedite the Energy Department approval process for natural gas exports played a central role in the energy negotiation process, and that will likely continue to play a similar role next Congress, the current highest-ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Energy and Power Subcommittee, Pete Olson (R-Texas), told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 8.

“You got Trump in the White House, man; got the Senate still; got the House. That’s the best opportunity. Just get through these next couple weeks, come back in there, get going and fix our country,” he said. “That should just be right off the bat. I mean, that’s American jobs, it’s clean energy.”

Christopher Guith, senior vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, told Bloomberg BNA that language, which would mandate that the department approve or deny an application in a short window, will be valuable moving forward, albeit potentially less critical under a Trump Administration.

“It’s probably still good to have it codified, and from an industry standpoint, that’s a really big ticket item,” he told Bloomberg BNA. Trump and his surrogates have long prioritized regulatory ease, particularly regarding energy. The president-elect has yet to name a nominee to head the Energy Department.

Guith said a potential Obama Administration veto-threat forced Republicans to hedge their interest in an overhaul effort this Congress, arguing next year Republicans will pursue a more “aggressive” strategy supported by an energy-friendly White House.

“I have very, very high hopes that we see a much more robust comprehensive bill next congress,” Guith said. “The White House stymied a lot of what both the House and Senate wanted. That was limiting and demoralizing.”

Skepticism and Bitterness

A potential Senate conflict over continuing resolution concerns unrelated to energy are still threatening a government shutdown, leading some observers to believe the House will be coerced back to Capitol Hill in the coming days to find common ground on the funding measure.

Despite that ambiguity, more time on Capitol Hill will not open a window for energy negotiations, Athan Manuel, Sierra Club director of Lands Protection, told Bloomberg BNA. Manuel followed the bill closely in light of the inclusion of Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthoriztion.

Manuel said the environment next Congress may prove more difficult. “Democrats will play hardball next year considering they have no administration ally as a backstop,” he said. “This was the only window for the next two to four years.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) blasted House members on the Senate floor late Dec. 8. “It is really irresponsible for our House colleagues to drop the ball without considering these solutions,” she said. Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) the day before said only two unresolved issues remain.

“There is a clear path forward where [natural gas provisions] can be included in a final package alongside a breakthrough agreement on wildfire budgeting, timber management reforms, sportsmen’s provisions, a west-wide water package, a robust public lands title, the National Parks Centennial, and important nuclear, cybersecurity, hydroelectric, and innovation policies,” she said Dec. 7 in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

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

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