Will Lame Ducks Set Stage for Energy Debate?

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

President Barack Obama came to office during a tumultuous period, and with a long list of policy priorities: stimulating the economy, withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, reforming the health care and financial services sectors, and so on.

Most of these issues required Congressional action, and the 111th Congress responded with a remarkable record of legislative accomplishments. With Democrats in charge of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it systematically assembled, debated and passed legislation right down the president’s list.

Yet on one significant presidential priority – energy and climate change legislation – progress has been elusive.

The House of Representatives passed climate legislation in summer 2009 and an offshore energy bill this past summer.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bipartisan energy bill in summer 2009 and its own offshore energy bill this year – but neither bill has been considered by the full Senate, and attempts at climate legislation have foundered. Prospects for passage of any of these bills in a post election lame-duck session are bleak.

In an interview in the October issue of Rolling Stone magazine, President Obama admitted as much, saying one of his “top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels [emphasis added].”

Nevertheless, efforts continued in September in the Senate to prepare for possible legislative action in the lame duck session.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, led the effort by joining forces with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) to introduce legislation mandating a federal renewable electricity standard (RES) of 15 percent by 2021.

A comparable RES had been the cornerstone of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s 2009 legislation. And lobbying by the environmental community for passage of a federal RES increased in recent weeks as it became apparent the Senate was unable to move climate legislation.

Together with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Bingaman introduced a clean energy tax measure before the Senate left town to campaign. According to a press release issued by Bingaman’s staff, the bill “focuses broadly on building and industrial energy efficiency; domestic manufacturing; emerging clean energy technologies; and carbon mitigation.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) – the second highest ranking Senate Democrat – agrees with Obama that passage of energy legislation this year is a “long shot.” The Senate already has ratification of the START nuclear arms treaty, extension of the Bush tax cuts and annual appropriations to tackle when it returns after the election.

If that is so, then why is anyone bothering to introduce these bills?

Because, first, there is a small chance a bill could pass.

Second, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has said that Senate energy legislation will be cobbled together from provisions with the 60 votes necessary to suspend debate and vote on the measure. These individual measures simplify that process.

Finally, these legislative initiatives could lay groundwork for the next Congress.

I agree with conventional wisdom that energy legislation is unlikely in 2010. But I am greatly concerned about measures I see moving in the appropriations process.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) chairs the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee, and has indicated that her bill would impose a Congressional moratorium on the Pacific outer continental shelf (OCS) along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Similarly, senior House Democrat appropriators have indicated desire to impose a Congressional moratorium on both the Pacific and Atlantic OCS.

These proposed moratoria are redundant, because the administration has no plans to lease the Pacific OCS and cancelled the Virginia lease sale planned for 2011 in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. But the spill is providing political cover for legislators to reinstate a policy that for 25 years prevented exploration and production of much of the nation’s OCS.

This would be a huge step backward for U.S. energy policy.

Election results will dictate whether energy legislation or appropriations move in the lame-duck session of Congress. Any legislation that does not pass before the 111th Congress adjourns is scrapped, and the 112th Congress begins with a fresh slate in January.

It’s a fresh slate for GEO-DC, too. No matter who wins in November, there will be new faces on Capitol Hill, new staff and no lack of people who need science and fact-based information to make better energy and environmental policy decisions.

AAPG is prepared to make sure they get it.

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Washington Watch - David Curtiss

David Curtiss served as the Director of AAPG’s Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. from 2008-11.

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Creties Jenkins is a past president of the EMD.

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