Senate Trains Spotlight on Next Round of Energy Debate

The full Senate begins debate this week on a major energy package that would raise auto mileage standards, ramp up use of biofuels and improve appliance efficiency.

The multifaceted bill also addresses carbon sequestration and would create new civil and criminal penalties for gasoline "price gouging." Still other sections would increase efficiency at federal buildings and seek to make energy security a higher priority in foreign policy.

The Finance Committee is also planning to mark up an energy tax package to be included in the bill before debate concludes later this month.

Debate is expected to begin later today with a cloture vote on proceeding to the legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is scheduled to discuss the bill in a speech before the Center for American Progress this morning. Amendments are expected on climate change (see related story), and several major floor battles are likely.

Tussle over CAFÉ

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is expected to offer an amendment to change the bill's corporate average fuel economy provisions. Right now, the bill would mandate a CAFE average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 for cars and light trucks.

Calling the current provision "not realistically achievable," Levin says he is working on a bipartisan plan with Commerce Committee members that would boost efficiency without harming the domestic auto industry. The Levin amendment has not been finalized, but draft versions call for a CAFE mandate of 36 mpg for passenger cars by 2022 and 30 mpg for light trucks by 2025.

Levin has also said his amendment will contain industry incentives for biofuels, plug-in hybrids and other "leap ahead" technologies. The plan could also allow automakers to opt out of the CAFE boost if they can guarantee certain increases in production of alternative vehicles, but Levin said a final decision has not been made on that language.

Renewable power mandates

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) plans to offer an amendment that would require utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020.

Standing in the way of Bingaman's plan is an alternative plan pushed by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the committee's top Republican, and others. The effort would create a broader "clean energy" standard that would allow "clean coal" and new nuclear generation to count toward the mandate.

The dueling plans are generating heavy lobbying, with some utilities pushing the alternative mandate while environmentalists press lawmakers to restrict the plan to renewable sources.

There are signs that amendments with other variations could emerge. One Senate Democratic aide said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) may offer a plan that would create a combined renewables and efficiency mandate for utilities. The aide said the so-called energy efficiency resource standard could also surface as a stand-alone amendment.


Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) is still planning an amendment that could require use of coal-to-liquids fuels, an aide said Friday.

Bunning and the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) offered an amendment when the bill was before the Senate Energy Committee to create a mandate of 21 billion gallons of the coal-based transportation fuels by 2022. Their plan said that greenhouse gas emissions from the fuels production and use could not exceed that of conventional gasoline.

Their amendment failed by one vote in committee. A Bunning spokesman said the senator hopes to offer a similar amendment.

However, sources on and off Capitol Hill said recently there have been talks about alternative coal-to-liquids amendments that would stop far short of such a mandate. Instead, they could address issues like increased military testing and subsidies for a limited number of CTL projects, these sources said.

Changes to biofuels plan?

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she is planning changes to the bill's biofuels title. "Senator Bingaman and I are working together on agreed upon amendments to strengthen it," she told E&E Daily on Thursday.

Details on the planned amendments were not available last week.

The current Senate bill contains an expanded renewable transportation fuels mandate that goes from 8.5 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. Starting in 2016, an increasing amount of the goal must be met with advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. The measure also says that fuels produced from new renewable fuels plants would have lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that are 20 percent lower than conventional gasoline.

Boxer recently introduced her own renewable fuels mandate legislation. Her plan included issues that fall outside of the energy panel, including provisions that required certain environmental safeguards accompanying production of biofuels crops and others addressing air emissions. It also includes much steeper targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels compared to conventional fuels.

Other efficiency, renewables amendments

Outside groups tracking the bill say Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are planning an amendment that would fund job training for work in the renewable energy and energy efficiency fields.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is planning an amendment to increase building efficiency by spurring states and local governments to update their building codes. His proposal would require states to meet national targets for enhanced building efficiency, his office said last week. The plan is designed to improve building codes nationwide to the point of boosting efficiency by 30 percent by 2012 and 50 percent by 2022, his office said.

A Senate aide said Landrieu is also mulling amendments on "oil savings" and expanding tax credits for energy efficient buildings.

Dorgan, Craig want more offshore drilling

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) are planning an amendment that would expand offshore oil and gas drilling.

"Realistically, the Congress must seek a solution that not only mandates advances in transportation efficiency and biofuels development, but also permits increased access to oil and natural gas resources located beneath our outer continental shelf in conjunction with strengthened environmental protections," the two said in a June 7 letter to Senate Democratic and GOP leaders.

The details of their potential amendment were not clear at press time. But they have floated plans to allow drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico as close as 45 miles from Florida's coast. The two offered and withdrew the plan when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee marked up major portions of the Senate energy bill last month.

Gulf oil and gas royalties

Also likely to surface are gulf oil and gas leases that currently allow royalty waivers regardless of energy prices.

Deepwater leases issued in 1998 and 1999 lack so-called price thresholds that suspend royalty incentives when prices climb past certain limits. Left uncorrected, the omission could eventually cost the Treasury billions in lost revenues, according to estimates.

The House has already passed legislation that would essentially bar companies holding these leases from buying new gulf leases unless they renegotiate the contracts or pay other fees.

How the Senate will address the issue is unclear. A Senate aide said one plan under consideration would use tax policy to address the matter. The aide said this plan would levy new per-barrel excise taxes on oil production but allow credits against much of this for royalties paid. This would effectively require significant payments from holders of 1998-1999 leases that do not require royalties, the aide explained, while avoiding breach-of-contract litigation.

Interior Department officials have suggested the House plan could prompt industry lawsuits that delay lease sales and ultimately stymie gulf production.

House markup delayed

Across the Capitol, House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has postponed by one week the subcommittee's planned markup of its energy legislation. Boucher has previously said the panel would mark up its energy package Wednesday, but that plan has been scuttled to address some of the concerns about the bill, according to a committee spokesman.

The legislation the committee will eventually mark up is expected to be the centerpiece of the energy package House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) intends to bring to the floor around the Fourth of July. The bill will contain a transportation section that would create a new alternative fuels mandate and increase vehicle efficiency, as well as other titles dealing with coal-to-liquids, appliance efficiency standards, a "smart" electricity grid and loan guarantees for advanced energy facilities.

The fuel title -- which Boucher first floated slightly over a week ago -- has faced a heap of criticism from both sides of the aisle in the days since its release. Most notably, some House Democrats, state officials and interest groups have vigorously opposed a provision that would prevent state agencies and U.S. EPA from setting their own greenhouse gas regulations for tailpipe emissions.

But liberal Democrats have also taken issue with other portions of the bill -- including what they say are the modest corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and the inclusion of incentives for coal-to-liquids development. Additionally, Republicans have questioned the feasibility of the alternative fuels mandate as well as the effect of the CAFE boost on auto industry workers.

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