US Congress presses for energy votes by October

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 9 -- Acknowledging that they have less than 3 weeks before the next recess, congressional leaders on both sides of the Capitol said they will bring energy bills up for votes soon.

The atmosphere was stormier in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) still seemed far apart on their ideas for a comprehensive bill, than in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) mentioned three bills he plans to bring to the floor next week and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for extensions of renewable energy tax credits and for expansions of Outer Continental Shelf leasing.

"So far, Congress has been unable to come together on a comprehensive solution to our nation's energy crisis. But the book hasn't closed yet on the 110th Congress," McConnell maintained on Sept. 8. "There is still time to act on this issue, and we should. We must work to provide relief for Americans across the country who are struggling with the high price of [gasoline] at the pump. Congress can still show that we're responsible to the needs of the American people by doing something about this crisis now."

In remarks on the Senate floor as he opened the September work period the same day, Reid said he would continue efforts to pass comprehensive energy legislation. "I am encouraged by the work of what started as the Gang of 10, and has now expanded to the Gang of 16 and perhaps of a gang of many more by the time this process has concluded. Next week, following Friday's energy summit, we expect to vote on several comprehensive energy bills," he said.

Three proposals
Reid specifically mentioned three proposals. The first, from Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would open new OCS areas for leasing, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and accelerate leasing off Alaska's coast. It also would require diligent development of areas that are already leased; extend renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced alternative fuel vehicle tax incentives (which would be paid for with higher oil company taxes); repeal deepwater royalty relief; and enact strong national energy efficiency building codes.

The bill from what has become the Gang of 16 also would open the eastern Gulf of Mexico for leasing as well as other areas off southeastern coastal states (except Florida) at the states' request; extend the same alternative energy tax incentives by raising oil companies' taxes, provide additional subsidies for building coal-to-liquids plants, and increase nuclear power plant subsidies, Reid said.

"And we are open to a vote on the Republican amendment that Sen. McConnell filed to the speculation bill. This amendment opens up all coastal areas to drilling at the states' requests, except for the eastern Gulf of Mexico which stays closed until 2022," Reid continued. The proposals also would close what has come to be called the London loophole by requiring commodity traders using overseas exchanges to trade US energy futures, options, and swaps to meet the same reporting and disclosure requirements as they use in domestic exchanges.

"It should be clear to all that we are offering Republicans multiple opportunities to vote for increased drilling, which they have chosen to make their marquee legislative priority and campaign issue. We offered votes on drilling before the August recess and Republicans rejected our offers. This time, I hope Republicans will put their votes where their mouths are to pass comprehensive legislation that includes drilling," Reid said.

Nothing to fear in this
"Americans want us to act to increase offshore exploration. There is nothing to fear in this. We can and should increase domestic energy exploration even as we encourage the use of alternative energy sources and new conservation measures. There is no good reason we can't get behind a balanced approach that would allow us to find more and use less at the same time," McConnell said.

Even with such sentiments, however, it's apparent that proposals presented as compromises in the Senate could contain punitive provisions aimed at energy producers and processors. The American Petroleum Institute and National Petrochemical and Refiners Association each have said that the proposal introduced Aug. 1 by what was then the Gang of 10 goes too far on new taxes and not far enough in opening more of the OCS.

The gap looked even wider in the House despite at least three proposals to expand OCS leasing and extend renewable energy tax credits which came out before the August recess began. Democratic and Republican leaders there staked out positions similar to ones they took before the August recess despite a statement by Pelosi's office that the majority would discuss comprehensive energy legislation they were preparing at a press conference on Sept. 9.

When they arrived from a midday caucus which ran 45 min overtime, however, the Democratic leadership said that discussions had been exceptionally productive but added that more work would need to be done before the bill was in its final form. "Comprehensive energy legislation will be the result of reasonable compromises," Pelosi said. Then she added that it will need to increase domestic supplies, end subsidies for oil and gas producers, and promote conservation, efficiency and research and development of alternative and renewable technologies.

Pelosi also disputed Republican charges that she had opposed bringing a bill calling for more leasing of the OCS to a floor before the August recess. "I was opposed to their idea that if the House voted in isolation for new drilling, we would bring the price at the pump down immediately. That was a hoax which was perpetrated on the American people," she said.

'Pin prices on the donkey'
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the Democrats' new energy bill would not come to the floor under a rules suspension as others have earlier this year, but he indicated that it will arrive under a rule which has not been determined yet. It also will be different from the bill promoted by Republican leaders and members, many of whom stayed behind to protest taking a recess in August without a vote on opening more of the OCS.

"It's not surprising they're trying to play pin the record gasoline prices on the donkey," Hoyer said, adding that at least one more caucus will be necessary before the Democrats' final bill emerges.

Others said that while Republicans made speeches each day in a darkened House chamber during August, Democrats conferred with their constituents in person and with each other by teleconference about energy issues. "I heard from my constituents all summer that they want an energy bill which will lead to economic growth and more jobs. The Republicans have produced neither in the last 8 years. When they say they want all of the above, they mean more of the same," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

House Republican leaders said that voters will accept nothing less than HR 6566, the bill they call the American Energy Act which not only would expand leasing on the OCS but also authorize leasing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, allow development of US oil shale resources and remove obstacles to constructing new refineries and expanding those which already exist. It also contains provisions designed to improve energy conservation and efficiency, and to promote renewable and alternative energy technologies.

"The American people don't want a little bit of the above. They don't want some of the above. They want all of the above," Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters at a morning briefing.

'No new energy'
Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that 134 House Republicans participated in the 4-week protest as they addressed tourists on Capitol tours instead of other members. "We'll look carefully at what the other side brings to the House floor. We'll look at what the Democrats roll out later today. My guess is their new energy legislation will produce no new energy," he said.

Republican Conference Vice-Chairwoman Kay Granger (Tex.) said that she found it refreshing to speak directly with voters on the House floor instead of to a microphone or C-SPAN television camera. "Many had their children with them and were going to get them ready to go back to school when they got home from vacation. Some told me that record-high gasoline prices could limit their after-school activities. That's not right," she said.

The protest was "the kind of no-nonsense approach that [2008 Republican vice presidential nominee] Sarah Palin used when she came into office as Alaska's governor," Granger said, adding "She announced that a natural gas pipeline would be built under a competitive bidding system and that's exactly what's happening."

Neither side's leadership appeared ready to consider compromise energy proposals which emerged in the House before the August recess. That didn't surprise Patrick Creighton, press secretary for Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), one of the original sponsors of one compromise bill which now has 131 cosponsors. "We could break 200 by the end of the week. If Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Boehner are serious about getting a new bill passed before Sept. 26, they'll have to take a bipartisan approach and look at one of the compromise proposals," Creighton told OGJ.

Voters still want to Congress to act, McConnell insisted. "One senator on the other side said that he thinks frustration over the high price of [gasoline] has peaked. But I've seen no evidence of this at all. In fact, I'm confident, after spending the past month away from Washington, that if we did little else these next few weeks but pass a serious response to high gas prices, fund the government and protect taxpayers, the American people would view these next few weeks as extremely productive," he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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