Senate-House energy policy bill conference gets under way

The joint congressional conference on federal energy policy reform legislation formally began on Sept. 8 as Republicans and Democrats from both sides of the Capitol acknowledged that changes are needed and much hard work lies ahead. Forty-one of the conference’s seven Senate and 39 House members made opening statements, which Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.) found impressive.

“The Senate did not approve going to conference until just before Congress took its break in mid-July, and I want to note the considerable contributions by some 90 Senate and House staff members from both parties helped us get ready,” she noted in her closing remarks as conference committee chair.

That work will involve reconciling differences between broad federal energy policy reforms that the Senate approved in April, and the House’s bill which contains more specific provisions that several Democrats there strongly oppose. Both bills contain language that would accelerate LNG export permit decisions at the US Department of Energy, Republicans noted.

“We are moving in the right direction for sure,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in his opening statement. “Fortunately, this energy bill conference is unlike previous ones: We are not here trying to address concerns about energy scarcity, high prices, and dependence on imports. Thanks to private sector innovations leading to increased domestic oil and gas output, the script has been flipped, and Congress can now approach energy issues from a position of strength.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Minority Member Maria E. Cantwell (D-Wash.) said, “I am optimistic that this conference committee can resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills, which will result in a bill the president can sign. So I take my colleague from Michigan’s words seriously: We don’t need to be pushing forward ideas that are going to be threatened by a veto. Instead, let’s work together to get a policy that can move us forward.”

Other Democrats on the committee warned that this could be difficult. “I can guarantee you we will fail if we let politics rule,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Ranking Minority Member. “There clearly are provisions in my committee’s jurisdiction I can support, and others that I can’t. I intend to be as constructive as possible.”

Rep. Lois Capps (Calif.), who is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said, “We have a chance to determine the course of our nation’s energy policy, and set our nation up for success. We are at the nexus of transitioning from fossil to clean fuels, and develop the technology to carry us into the future. We must do so by continuing to address the threat of climate change and remove harmful policies that put profit and politics over people.”

Several conference committee Democrats said that permanently funding the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is essential. Some Republicans disagreed. “This conference committee represents a breakthrough for this Congress, and I’m proud to be a part of it. The Land and Water Conservation Fund needs to be reformed, not just reauthorized. Mission drift over the years has made it less effective,” said Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.), a House Natural Resources Committee member.

Others said the final bill the conference hopes to send to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature needs to include provisions which improve energy transmission. “None of our hard work matters if we can’t get our resources to market,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) who is vice-chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee. “The House bill has good language on oil and gas pipelines, and the Senate bill has good language on power lines. We have to make sure that local differences are taken into account as well as impacts on families.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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