Congress came close but didn’t pass a comprehensive energy bill last year. Now a bipartisan push is underway to repackage many of that failed bill’s pieces as part of the infrastructure legislation the Trump administration hopes to sign into law this year.
Because Senate Republicans hold only 52 seats and 60 votes are required under current Senate rules to pass most legislation, Republicans will need some Democrats’ votes. One House committee staff member tells Agri-Pulse that Senate rules are “always going to be an obstacle for us.” But to deal with this constraint, she says Republicans are working hard to draft legislation that has significant bipartisan support in the House and “hopefully will attract similar bipartisan support in the Senate.”
Examples of GOP efforts to win Democrats’ votes include two bills the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Agriculture Committee are working on now: the Electricity Reliability and Forest Protection Act, H.R. 1873, and the Bureau of Land Management Foundation Act, H.R. 1668.
The House passed prior versions of the two bipartisan bills last year. The Reliability bill would streamline procedures for removing trees and other hazards threatening electricity transmission lines, to avoid power failures and forest fires. The BLM bill would create a nonprofit foundation to accept private donations to fund BLM operations to include “reclamation of abandoned mine lands, orphaned oil and gas well sites, or public lands impacted by development connected to mineral exploration and development activities.”
The Senate is moving in the same bipartisan direction. On April 6, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) Chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo., explained that his committee has “begun important bipartisan work on energy development” to increase the benefits from America’s “abundance of natural resources, particularly for energy production.”
Calling energy the “master resource,” Barrasso said, “Working with a large, bipartisan group of senators, we introduced, and the committee passed, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act,” (S. 512). EPW voted 18-3 for the bill designed to accelerate development and licensing of advanced nuclear reactors, and improve uranium regulation and accountability.
In a joint statement supporting the nuclear energy bill co-sponsored by seven Democrats along with seven Republicans, Barrasso and EPW’s top Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, highlighted different aspects of the bill. Barrasso said the bill “will create jobs, lower energy costs, and allow America to remain a leader in nuclear development.” Carper said the legislation “shows how we can work together, across the aisle, to address issues that are important for our country.” After echoing Barrasso in saying passing the bill will create jobs, Carper stressed another reason for his co-sponsoring the bill: “When done responsibly, nuclear power can help combat the negative impacts of climate change on our environment and public health.”
Carper’s climate-change remarks contrast with Barrasso’s recent demand that the U.S. “pull out of the Paris climate agreement entirely” and scrap President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other federal regulations to limit carbon emissions. Crediting private industry rather than government regulations for current emissions reductions, Barrasso argues that “We can reduce our emissions without the Paris accords.” Yet both senators are committed to passing bipartisan energy legislation such as the nuclear energy bill. Their aim is to lock in bipartisan support by including enough fossil-fuel provisions to please Republicans while winning over some Democrats by providing at least tacit recognition of the need to reduce CO2 emissions.
Despite his repeated objections to federal limits on carbon emissions, Barrasso insists on the need for “making sure that we have clean air, clean water, and a clean environment.” Acknowledging Democrats’ concerns, he says that “we want to protect our environment, while allowing our economy to grow.” While the coal-state senator mentioned solar but not wind in speaking to the Environmental Council of States earlier this month, Barrasso said “We need to use an all-of-the-above approach with American-made energy. Here in America, we have coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, solar, and nuclear, and we need to use them all.”
Encouraged by sending the nuclear energy bill to the full Senate with a significant 18-3 committee vote, Barrasso clearly hopes to win Democrats’ support for further action. He pointed out that “In personal meetings, members of our committee, both Democrat and Republican, have expressed that infrastructure is a top priority.”
Reflecting the GOP view that this year’s best vehicle for energy legislation that removes “burdensome” federal regulations will be a comprehensive infrastructure bill, Barrasso said “The Republican majority in Congress and the Trump administration are working together to roll back the regulatory rampage that Washington has imposed on the country.” He adds that “An important part of our infrastructure plan is streamlining the permitting process to allow states, localities, and private interests to build infrastructure in a safer, more efficient way.”
As part of the GOP’s regulatory roll-back efforts, President Trump’s March 28 Energy Executive Order required all federal agencies to “immediately review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources . . . with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.”
The order defines “burden” as imposing any federal barriers or delays that create “significant costs on the siting, permitting, production, utilization, transmission, or delivery of energy resources.”
That was the cue for Congress to act because “suspending, revising, or rescinding” many of the provisions targeted by Trump will either require changes or be strengthened by legislation. In welcoming Trump’s executive order, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, promised legislation. “This order begins the reversal of a number of harmful and ideologically-driven policies,” he said. “We will work with the President to add statutory permanence to prevent future administrations from resurrecting this harmful regulatory agenda.”
Undermining such GOP hopes for bipartisan legislation, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Energy Committee Democrat, was among the first to speak out against Trump’s energy order. Her response was that Trump’s order overturning the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan along with other energy and climate initiatives “marks an irresponsible retreat from making polluters pay, promoting energy efficiency, growing our clean energy economy, addressing the threat of climate change, and ensuring taxpayers get a fair return for the minerals they own.”
Cantwell concluded by charging that “The Trump administration is sabotaging the United States’ chances of becoming the world’s clean energy superpower in order to line the pockets of polluters.” She pledged to “oppose this wrong-headed order with every tool at my disposal.”
But Republicans in Congress remain hopeful that their efforts at bipartisanship will succeed because they only need to peel off eight Senate Democrats to pass legislation, “not win a popularity contest.”