Slow Turning on Environment, Energy Bills: Spring 2018 Hill Watch

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By Dean Scott

Recent congressional victories reauthorizing the EPA’s Brownfields Program and extending carbon capture tax credits combined with looming midterm elections could cool any movement on big-ticket environmental and energy bills.

With mid-term elections less than seven months away, Senate aides said there are big obstacles to maneuvering environmental and energy bills to a floor jammed full of slow-moving Trump confirmations competing with “must-pass” bills that need action in the months ahead. They include the next funding bill to keep agencies open after the current omnibus expires Sept. 30 but also defense and farm bill reauthorization measures and possibly small-bore bills on infrastructure.

That won’t keep some energy-minded lawmakers from trying to move bills, including broad energy legislation (S. 1460) by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that has languished on the Senate calendar for months.

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Others, including the former chairman of the Senate environment panel, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), said they’d much prefer to be on the floor helping the Trump administration roll back Obama-era regulations such as the Clean Water Rule, but they can’t because Democrats have clogged the pipeline on nominees.

“The confirmations being backed up that’s the main reason [legislation] is not moving as fast it should,” Inhofe told Bloomberg Environment April 10, noting that it’s been six months since Trump announced his nominee for the No. 2 spot at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler.

A final Senate vote on Wheeler is expected in the days ahead.

A Victim of Success?

To some degree, there may not be much appetite for big environmental and energy bills because Congress has already moved on many bills that seemed in limbo just a few months ago. Expired renewable energy credits were extended in a Senate budget deal in February that also increased carbon capture and storage credits. A long-sought reauthorization of the EPA Brownfields Program was included in an fiscal year 2018 omnibus bill Congress passed in March.

Jim Matheson, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told his members April 9 that Congress has either acted or made progress on virtually every top legislative agenda item for the group, which represents not-for-profit utilities.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers don’t have bills they’d like to move in the months ahead, including at least three that would build on the increased carbon capture and storage incentives Congress just passed. Those include a bill (S. 2602) that would streamline permitting for carbon capture projects. The measure is backed by the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), but also Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.).

Another bill to watch is the Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act (H.R. 1119), which would allow electric utilities that generate power from coal waste to comply with either air pollution emissions standards for hydrogen chloride or sulfur dioxide—but not both. The House passed the bill in March, and it has been referred to Barrasso’s Senate environment panel.

But getting the bill to the Senate floor would mean overcoming the same obstacle to other Republican-led legislation designed to roll back environmental requirements—getting 60 votes to break a filibuster threat. Democrats, with an eye toward the November midterm elections and possibly retaking control of the Senate, aren’t expected to agree to many of those efforts.

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