Congress has only a few weeks left in session this year. Before the first half of the 114th Congress ends, members must contend with extending expired tax credits, funding the government for Fiscal Year 2016, and reauthorizing a highway bill. All this must be tackled before attention shifts to primary elections and the 2016 campaign. This packed legislative agenda, though, offers a great opportunity to address another critical area: energy and environmental policy.
Our energy landscape has altered dramatically since the last energy bill passed Congress in 2007. Through technological advances and reduced energy use, our nation has moved from a position of energy weakness and scarcity to one of security and abundance. Yet, our energy regulatory framework has not kept pace with the changing landscape. Updating our nation’s energy policy is critical to maintaining our economic growth and enhancing national security.
Can Congress bring any type of energy and environmental policy across the finish line with such a packed legislative agenda? The resounding answer is yes. The limited time available, however, means most likely provisions will be added to must-pass legislation, such as an omnibus, at the end of the year. Adding some provisions to a year-end, must-pass piece of legislation has the extra advantage of providing more room for negotiations with the other provisions in the bill. In short, Congress should not shy away from dusting off their negotiating skills to move some energy and environmental provisions over the finish line.
What energy provisions could be in the running for passage? Here are some predictions:
Lifting the oil export ban
With a very different energy and geopolitical landscape today than when the crude oil export ban was put into place, Congress is examining whether the 40-year-old law still makes sense. The Bipartisan Policy Center has found that lifting the crude oil export ban eliminates a counterproductive market barrier and helps the economy. The House passed a bill to lift the crude oil export ban, so this remains strongly in the running for inclusion in an end of the year bill. While the vote in the House was mostly partisan, there is an ability for an amended bipartisan form of this bill to move. Discussions are already underway in the Senate on how to achieve repealing the ban. If a Senate deal can be made, this could be an addition to the omnibus bill.
Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) Reform
Congress has not achieved reforming an environmental law in decades. This 40-year-old bill needs modernization, as it no longer serves its original function and fails to regulate the majority of chemicals that enter the market. Overwhelming numbers of bipartisan members coming together to push reform in both chambers on environmental policy is revolutionary and shows Congress can still work together. A fight over using the Senate bill as a vehicle to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has delayed its Senate passage. If a deal on LWCF can be had, TSCA could be added to an end of the year piece of legislation if the differences in the House and Senate bills can be worked out in time. The filibuster-proof co-sponsors in the Senate and overwhelming bipartisan support in the House mean Congress should find a way to pass the bill in some form this year.
There is no question our electric grid is outdated. Reliable, affordable, and clean electricity service is essential to our nation’s economy, health and security. Some reform on this issue is a possibility for end-of-year passage because areas of bipartisan agreement exist. The highway bill conference report, which Congress will vote on this, includes a provision that provides the government emergency powers over the electric grid in the event of a cyberattack. In addition, there are other electricity provisions Congress could consider passing. The Senate Energy Policy Modernization Act (EPMA) contains bipartisan provisions that would help to secure and modernize our nation’s electric grid. EPMA contains provisions to enhance cybersecurity and grid reliability, and to advance technologies and regulatory policies necessary to modernize the electric grid.
Hydropower is the most affordable, reliable, and cost-effective source of renewable energy today. It is America’s largest renewable energy generation source and has considerable expansion potential. However the regulatory process is inefficient and cumbersome. For example, it can take 8-10 years to complete the relicensing process for approval. Bipartisan support exists for regulatory reforms in both the House and Senate energy bills. If a deal can be struck, improvements to the licensing and relicensing process for hydropower can pass before the end of the year.
One driver of our current energy-abundant landscape has been continued gains in energy efficiency. When adjusted for inflation, the United States has cut its energy needs by more than 50 percent since 1973. Mindful of the need to continue energy efficiency gains, Congress has been working for years to pass bipartisan legislation. While portions of Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman’s (R-OH) energy efficiency bill passed Congress earlier this year, more provisions remain on the table to finish. Energy efficiency provisions that will benefit consumers, the economy, and the environment are ripe for Congress to pass this year to continue the energy production gains achieved.
Innovation has long been a key driver of U.S. economic growth. For example, a public-private research and development (R&D) partnership developed horizontal drilling technologies, spurring economic growth and enabling the U.S. to take great strides toward energy independence. Aeroderivative natural gas turbines emerged from military R&D investments in jet engines and partnerships between our National Labs and the private sector created super-efficient diesel engines. Despite these and many other advances, work is still needed to produce a suite of technologies that can affordably address both domestic and global environmental and security challenges. Our economic competitiveness is also at stake, as the United States is falling behind other countries in the pursuit of transformative energy technologies, ranking just 11th in energy R&D investments. There is bipartisan support for reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which includes the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program and other critical energy R&D programs. Congress should strongly consider moving this issue forward this year.
As end-of-year negotiations heat up, lawmakers should remember that bipartisan energy policies can still be added to the mix before the lights go out on Capitol Hill in 2015. Taking the first steps towards updating our energy and environmental policies is long overdue.