Rocky Path Seen for Energy Bill Conference

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By Ari Natter

June 7 — The path ahead for the House and Senate to reconcile their versions of broad energy legislation appears to be rocky, with some analysts questioning whether a formal conference between the two chambers will occur.

The House's decision to add to its version of the bill a slew of energy policy measures opposed by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats makes it unlikely that enough Senate Democrats would support sending the Senate version to a conference committee to work out differences, a Democratic leadership aide told Bloomberg BNA.

“It doesn’t make anyone want to hurry to talk about things that can’t get done,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “I don’t know that they are very serious about getting something when they send over things that the president clearly said he would veto.”

In the balance hangs what could be the first broad energy bill passed by Congress is nearly a decade.

Both the House and the Senate versions include measures to expedite the federal approval process for liquefied natural gas exports, streamline the approval process for electric transmission lines, increase cybersecurity protections for the electricity grid and expedite licensing for hydropower projects.

Key Differences

But the bills also contain key differences that would need to be negotiated. Many of them, such as language opposed by the Obama administration to streamline the permitting process for mines and a provision that would require expedited consideration of natural gas and pipeline siting applications by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, were recently added to the bill as part of an 806-page amendment approved May 25 by the House (101 ECR, 5/25/16).

“I would have real issues going to conference with that un-credible of an opener,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters.

Election year politics almost certainly were in play in the House's decision to load up the bill with an amendment composed of bills that the White House already threatened to veto, analysts such as Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration climate adviser, told Bloomberg BNA.

Election Year Politics

“I think the fundamental question is does the House want to get a bill, and if they do, what kind of compromises are they willing to make? How far are they willing to go toward the Senate language? In an election year, that’s not going to be easy,” said Bledsoe, who is president of Bledsoe & Associates, an independent energy consultancy.

“I would say the rhetoric of Trump contrasted with the rhetoric of Clinton has made that probably harder,” he added. “When the Republican standard bearer throws down gauntlets on a whole variety of energy and climate issues, it could be harder for House Republicans to compromise.”

Chris Miller, who spent eight years as senior policy adviser on energy and environment climate issues for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said a “distinct possibility” exists the Senate won’t choose to go to conference.

“What’s the incentive for Democrats to go to conference, particularly if they are going to take the Senate majority,” said Miller, who now works at AJW, a consulting firm. “President Clinton will want to have some sort of energy policy initiative fairly early on.”

Some Still See Bill Possible

Still, not everyone believes Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chief architect of the Senate bill, will allow the legislation to go into the waste basket after months of work.

A conference will work out differences to reach a bill that can be signed into law, because no one wants to end up with one that the president would veto, a former committee staffer told Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter 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