Key energy advisers point to potential legislative deals next session

Source: Elana Schor, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Political head winds are likely to slow progress on energy legislation until next year at the earliest, veteran congressional observers on both sides of the aisle said yesterday.

That bleak prognosis is hardly surprising to many who have watched a divided 112th Congress spend much of the past two years fighting over basic duties such as keeping the government funded. But the long view offered by Bob Simon, top aide to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Democratic majority, and former senior GOP energy adviser David Conover hardly sounded like a funereal dirge for substantive environmental policymaking.

“What you generally find is, energy policy accomplishment comes two years after an episode,” Simon, staff director to soon-to-retire Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said at a forum hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars think tank.

“People remember there was a problem, but now there is more space for people to dialogue and work on a solution to the problem without being accused of selling out their side to the other side.”

Conover, a one-time staff director to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans who later joined President George W. Bush’s Energy Department, also indicated that the two sides could seek compromise next year.

He suggested that the GOP could diverge from its usual anti-federalism to pursue a national “deal” to put hydraulic fracturing for shale gas on a surer footing.

“All this happy talk” about a boom in American fuel production is contingent upon a continuing uptick in natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and other high-tech tactics to tap unconventional resources, Conover explained. “State-based bans and prohibitive regulations may well screw that up.”

Yet any accord on hydrofracking policy is “certainly not” headed for passage during the remaining seven months of the congressional session, he added.

Two areas that could break through the present logjam in 2012, according to Conover: an extension of renewable energy tax credits such as the production break for wind and solar and further support for energy “innovation” initiatives such as DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which counts fans in both parties.

Indeed, a top Republican member of the House Ways & Means Committee said last week that the production tax credit is in the “top tier” of those likely to get an reprieve — even if that extension must come retroactively after its expiration at year’s end (E&E Daily, May 18).

Former Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.), now president of the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, echoed Conover and Simon’s projections for progress on energy legislating by pointing to rising fuel prices as “a blowtorch on the rear end of Congress” to pursue major energy proposals. Helped along by falling oil costs, average U.S. per-gallon gasoline prices have sunk to more than 13 cents below their level at this time last year.

111th flashback

Both Simon and Conover harked back to lawmakers’ last attempt to pass a big-ticket energy bill, the massive cap-and-trade climate change plan that squeaked through the House before stalling in the Senate.

Simon offered a version of the collapse of energy legislation in the 111th Congress that differed somewhat from former Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) take. Now a leader at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s energy project, Dorgan said last year that Democratic leaders’ insistence on prioritizing the climate bill ultimately doomed the bipartisan product that Bingaman already had taken to the floor (E&E Daily, Oct. 25, 2011).

That bill included a national renewable electricity standard, an iteration of the “clean energy standard” plan that Bingaman recently introduced despite its nonexistent chances of winning a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Simon also pointed to the cap-and-trade bill as a momentum sapper for Bingaman’s previous energy bill, but he credited the Obama administration for “put[ting] a lot of effort and a lot of chits on the table to get the climate bill through. As a result of that, we weren’t able to get the energy bill through because the two topics overlapped.”

Conover looked back even earlier, identifying what he saw as a culprit behind the cap-and-trade measure’s demise.

“The stimulus program took all the dessert and pre-passed that,” Conover said, referring to the billions of dollars in clean-energy grants included in the White House’s 2009 recovery package. What climate bill authors were left to unsuccessfully sell, he added, was “just the hard policy.”