Congress has a lot to consider before lawmakers leave in early October to campaign for the fall elections. Of perennial interest to industry are the 13 spending bills that fund the federal government each year. But more pressing is a pending comprehensive energy bill that addresses a myriad of issues impacting the oil and gas industry (see Newsletter, p. 7).
Industry officials are betting that lawmakers want to show their constituents that Capitol Hill's 2-year consideration of energy reform legislation was not a waste of time. California power outages may be a fading memory and gasoline prices are still in historically manageable ranges, but the public recognizes the "driving need" to update the country's aging infrastructure, noted Bill Kovacs, vice-president, environment, technology, and regulatory affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce. Kovacs spoke before the Women's Council on Energy and the Environment Sept. 10.
He predicted Congress will likely pass legislation in early fall, or perhaps later if lawmakers return for a lame-duck session to finish up old business before a new congressional session begins next January.
Kovacs said other factors may come into play when considering whether an energy bill passes this year.
The desire of the Energy Conference Chairman, Billy Tauzin (R-La.), also chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, cannot be discounted, Kovacs suggested.
"Tauzin has made it clear that, if he's still alive, there will be an energy bill," he said.
Kovacs predicted that an important dynamic will be foreign policy considerations, given that the White House is mulling expanded military action against oil-rich Iraq.
Tauzin has suggested that no member of Congress will want to be criticized back home if tensions within the Middle East create energy price spikes; those spikes could erupt at the start of the heating oil season, creating a political nightmare.
Energy conferees were scheduled to resume negotiations Sept. 12; issues that may get resolved at that meeting include pipeline safety and energy efficiency, including a look at corporate average fuel economy.
Kovacs acknowledged that many lobbyists are pessimistic about whether Congress can complete a bill, given the abundance of controversial and complex issues.
Most news reports have concentrated on a proposal in the House bill that would allow the Department of the Interior to lease a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On the Senate side, a plan to effectively mandate fuel ethanol in a portion of the gasoline pool as a clean fuel strategy is also grabbing headlines, although it has a much stronger chance of passing than ANWR leasing does, either in an energy bill or included in other unrelated legislation.
But Kovacs refused to write off ANWR just yet, despite the conventional Washington wisdom. He said there is a decent chance that drilling opponents may be willing to allow a modified ANWR proposal. That could mean reduced acreage available for leasing or asking Interior to study the subject further, with the understanding that a favorable outcome would allow leasing to commence.