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Passage Of A Broad Energy Bill May Be Tougher Than Before

Amy Sisk/Inside Energy

Wyoming’s Republicans in Washington are hoping to pass broad energy policy in this congressional session after inter-party squabbling in the GOP derailed the effort last year.

In the last Congress, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan energy bill that included Wyoming Senator John Barrasso’s push to expedite the export of Liquefied Natural Gas. That bill garnered support from 85 out of 100 senators but was never sent to the desk of former President Obama. Barrasso was upset that the bill died after negotiations with House Republicans fell apart.

“It was massive bipartisan support. Then it got stuck in the process on the House side to get it done completely.”

The last energy bill died in part because House Republicans were banking on getting a better deal for their interests if a Republican were in the White House instead of Obama who pushed for modernization and energy efficiency to be a big part of the package. Barrasso says he’s still holding out hope that the Senate can tackle a new energy bill early next year, possibly even in January.

But Democrats are now balking. Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell is the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She’s dubious a new bipartisan effort can be passed in part because of the GOP’s focus on tax reform and killing Obamacare, which she says are aimed at helping the wealthiest Americans.

“These guys have sidetracked all important policies; it's just derailing the middle-class.”  

A big part of the reason the effort failed last year was that House Republicans didn’t like that senators wanted a long-term extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund takes revenue from offshore oil and gas projects and invests it in things like wildlife and national parks. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney serves on the Natural Resources Committee and says she doesn’t want her fellow House members to cave to bipartisan Senate demands right out of the gate.

“I think we ought to do what we think is right, and we ought to put legislation forward that we think accomplishes our goals and then it's a Senate's problem to figure out how to get it passed over there, and we ought to keep pressure on them.”

Democrats accuse Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee of wanting to kill the land and water fund altogether. Here’s Arizona’s Raul Grijalva – the top Democrat on the committee.

“The land and water conservation fund, which has been critical, is still up in limbo.”

In negotiations on many energy proposals, especially any dealing with public lands, Cheney’s House Natural Resources Committee takes the lead in negotiations with the Senate. Grijalva says he’s left with no one to negotiate with these days in the House.

“So everything you are seeing is about deregulation, weakening some laws, and opening up the public lands. That's it.”  

That’s why Democrats, like Virginia Congressman Don Beyer, accuse Republican leaders of stacking the House committee with only far-right energy-friendly Republicans.

“There are many Republicans who are willing to work on climate change issues and deemphasize our dependence on fossil fuel. They just aren't on the National Resources Committee.”

Congresswoman Cheney sees things much differently. She says her committee is working to ensure that executive actions taken by Trump on energy issues outlast his administration which has been aggressively – and successfully – focused on unwinding Obama-era regulations.

“So I think there is a clear focus on trying to put legislation in place that can make sure that we can protect the kinds of changes that the administration's making in the long term.”

For instance, Cheney is sponsoring a bill that will end any future moratorium on coal leases on public lands without joint approval by Congress. Democrats hate the bill and say it unwinds decades of precedent, but Cheney says it’s a part of the broader goal of House Republicans to make Trump’s legacy permanent.

 “Look, I think that what it does, is it takes back congressional authority that we should not have let go to the executive branch. I think if the executive branch is going to take such drastic action as putting certain areas off limits for coal leasing, that's beyond their authority. And that's something that they have to come back to Congress to get approval for.”

With the Senate once again hoping to pass a broad energy package early next year and the House focused on sending the upper chamber narrow, hyper-partisan energy bills, it remains unclear if this Congress can pass long-lasting energy policy.

And with Republicans in charge of the House, Senate, and White House, Democrats say the GOP will carry all the blame if Congress once again fails to pass the first sweeping energy bill in a decade. 

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