Congress’ latest activities are high-energy

August 1, 2007 By    

Trying to stay updated on energy legislation this year is no small task as hundreds of legislators working through dozens of committees put their mark on what the Democratic leadership hopes will be comprehensive energy legislation.

Lisa Bontempo Washington Bureau
Lisa Bontempo Washington Bureau

Some legislators are driven to act in light of consumer issues, such as rising gas prices and energy independence. Others are driven by a growing awareness of climate change, and others are driven by being back in the Democratic majority after 12 years of Republican control. Whatever their motivation, members of the House and Senate have miles to go to reach consensus on any comprehensive measure.

Let’s look at what agreements have been reached so far.

This spring, four Senate committees pulled together the Senate’s energy bill, which raised fuel efficiency for automobiles, increased the use of biofuels, outlined fuel price gouging penalties and set appliance, lighting and building efficiency standards.

Significant opposition from the auto industry, coal and nuclear supporters and the Bush administration (to the price gouging provision) followed, and several senators continued to push for inclusion of oil and gas exploration in the bill.

On June 21, the Senate ended up passing a bill that increases biofuel production, raises energy efficiency standards and curbs greenhouse gas emissions. It also included a much-fought-over raise in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

The final Senate measure included a ban on price gouging during federal emergencies and places the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries under U.S. antitrust law; this is likely to trigger a veto from the White House if it remains in final passage.

The Senate-passed bill did not include the controversial issues of a carbon tax or cap on carbon emissions or a Renewable Portfolio Standard to require that utilities get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020.

A $32 billion energy tax package from the Senate Finance Committee also was omitted. This tax measure extends energy tax credits for renewable fuels (including the use of alternative fuels) and was dropped from the package in light of significant opposition from the oil and gas industries. The industries objected to the renewable tax credit being paid for by a repeal of a 2004 tax deduction for energy exploration.

In the House, 11 committees with jurisdiction over energy issues helped produce legislation. This includes the House Ways and Means Committee, which has passed a smaller energy tax incentives bill than the Senate bill. The House’s $16 billion measure, too, focuses on increasing alternative energy sources and paying for it by taking funds from the oil and gas industry.

What the House energy package will look like is anyone’s guess as several powerful members vie to define it. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are central to this debate.

A major sticking point is the House’s failure to agree on new CAFE standards for automobiles. Dingell is a defender of the auto industry and does not want CAFE standards in the House energy bill. He also has removed renewable electricity standards from the current House energy debate. Pelosi is a strong supporter of the Senate’s CAFE provision and wants to see it included in the House’s energy floor debate as part of a comprehensive energy bill.

While the current energy bills before Congress address reduction in greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change issues are much bigger than these bills ultimately tackle. Congress has a lot of large, unresolved issues before it. Whether it is able to overcome these differences in this session remains to be seen.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics, and can be reached at lisabontempo@msn.com.

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