The Contentious Path to Energy Policy

Abstract: Republicans and Democrats wrangle their way toward a comprehensive energy bill. Will they have it ready by their October goal?

Analysis: Republican members of the U.S. Senate/House energy conference committees began this week to release draft legislation for review and comment by Democrats. Working in secret, the Republicans have been rewriting H.R. 6, passed by the Senate the end of July, and melding it with energy legislation passed by the House in April (S. 14).

Needless to say, this rewrite in isolation does not suit Democrats. Conference committees are traditionally bipartisan. They iron out differences--usually minor--between bills passed by the Senate and House. The single bill that results can be approved by the full House and Senate and sent to the President for signing into law.

But this Republicans-only conference is blending widely different versions of legislation and rewriting much of it. S. 14, the House version of the bill, passed in April, comprises a largely Republican content. H.R. 6, however, was passed by the Senate last year--when Democrats were in the majority--but failed to clear both houses of congress before adjournment in 2002. At the end of July, when the Senate was about to run out of time and far from agreement on a new bill, H.R. 6 (as passed by the Senate in 2002) was dusted off and passed again.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee was delighted. “We’ll rewrite that bill,” he said. That process is underway now, blending H.R. 6 with S. 14 and even picking up pieces of the original House version of H.R. 6 from last year.

Immediate Objection
Working with representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), House Energy and Commerce committee chairman, Domenici selected Republicans from the 53-member the House/Senate conference committee to combine H.R. 6 and S. 14 with parts of the original H.R. 6. Domenici said that this is the only way a timely conference report could be achieved so everyone can work from the same text as early as possible.

This drew fire from the ranking Democratic senator, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman. In a letter to Domenici, Bingaman said the decision to write a preliminary version of the conference report on H.R. 6, without involvement by Democrats is “deeply flawed.” Bingaman said “If the goal is to achieve true bipartisan consensus on the important energy challenges facing the nation, this is a mistaken way of going about it. A process in which the duly appointed conferees for 49 Senators get only to react to legislative text that has been negotiated without their input would not seem to constitute a real effort to find common ground on crucial and complex issues that are not inherently partisan.”

But Domenici said he was convinced the conference would be mired in confusion if the three bills under consideration were not swiftly reduced to a single text for the purpose of negotiations. “Once the draft language has been produced, subsequent meetings will be open and inclusive,” he asserted.

First Drafts
On September 15, the committee released draft language on provisions of the energy bill concerned with hydrogen, clean coal technologies, the Alaska natural gas pipeline, nuclear matters, energy efficiency, and personnel and training.

The draft included a route for a 3,500-mile natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, through Fairbanks, then along the Alaska Highway and on to Chicago.

Domenici and Tauzin said they had instructed staffs to begin holding meetings with “Republican and Democratic conferees and the majority and minority staffs of House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the issue.” This they expected to produce language that could be presented to conferees in an open and bipartisan process.

Democrats reacted negatively, saying they were studying the drafts but did not know how meaningful staff meetings could be. “Chairman Domenici and Chairman Tauzin are perfectly capable of writing an energy conference report in secret, just like the Cheney task force did its work shrouded in secrecy,” said a Bingaman press release.

After resuming work from the interruption of proceedings by Hurricane Isabel, Domenici announced that the draft bill would include provision for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

ANWR is a highly charged issue and a lightning rod for environmental opponents. Domenici has said many times he would need 60 votes for closure to get it through a filibuster, and he will not let opposition to ANWR jeopardize an energy bill. “I have included ANWR in the conference discussion draft because developing ANWR is the right thing to do. Environmentally sound oil development in the Arctic creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, boosts our national economy, sends millions of dollars into the economies of virtually every state in the union and strengthens our national defense by making us less reliant on oil from hostile nations.”

More draft language is due to be released this week by Republican staffers on electricity, MTBE (gasoline additive) liability, and nuclear subsidies. Still nothing has been heard from the committee Republicans about issues such as the inventory of the outer continental shelf.

Electricity has already drawn much attention as a result of the August blackouts. Reports in the press indicate that the draft bill introduces regional federal oversight over electric utility companies. This measure has drawn fire from independent power producers who view it as the first step in federalizing the electric power grid and forcing states that have invested in infrastructure to share power with those that have not.

CAFE standards, greenhouse gas reductions, and similar environmental issues will likely not surface in the Republican committee drafts, leaving it to Democrats to reintroduce some of these provisions as they get involved in the bill. Indeed, Democrats may turn ugly if they have to do battle attempting to rescue many parts of H.R. 6, possibly calling into question Domenici’s October goal. That will become clear this week and next as Democrats begin to comment on the drafts. To see for yourself what they are up against in combining the three bills, pull up the following .pdf file from the Senate website, in which provisions of the three bills appear side by side: National Energy Policy Comparison.