The Energy Minefield on Capitol Hill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left the White House in no doubt about where her priorities lie on the much-debated 2007 Energy Bill, according to the weekly newsletter of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). In response to a letter from the President’s Assistant for Economic Policy, Allan Hubbard, that threatened a veto of any bill that offended the Bush Administration’s sensibilities, Pelosi responded succinctly that she intended to present a bill that was good for the American people.

Blunt talk is perhaps the Speaker’s only way of negotiating the minefield that the Energy Bill now resembles. The bill is now in its ‘conference committee’ stage, where differences between House and Senate versions are supposed to be ironed out.

The Senate version of the bill actually started life in the House as a revenue bill (HR6); it was taken up and passed by the Senate stripped of its tax title but including such measures as renewable fuel standards, minimum fuel economy standards for automobiles, and an anti-price gouging section.

The House, kept in session by Speaker Pelosi into the first weekend of its August recess so as to pass their version (HR3221), finally passed a bill containing a 15% Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard, production incentives for biofuels, tax incentives for energy efficiency measures, funding for geothermal and solar R&D and a tightening of tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.

The salad days of August over, legislators compared the two versions and found, in addition to the above, two glaring shortcomings:

• There is no investment tax credit for residential installations in the House version; unless the Senate version of this line item is adopted, there will be no tax incentive to help individuals install solar power on their homes.
• There is no tax title in the Senate version, essential for funding aspects of the emerging renewable energy industry.

Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi have their hearts in getting this legislation passed, and have no intention of bringing an incomplete bill to the floor, where Republicans can wound it with amendments or kill it with filibustering. They have also been trying to avoid establishing a formal conference, which Republicans could stall by objecting to conference nominees.

“We cannot have a situation where if (the Republicans) don’t give us a conference, we don’t have a bill,” Pelosi was quoted as saying last week by the Detroit News. “With or without a conference, we will proceed.”

Instead, and as they had done successfully last year with the ethics bill, Pelosi and Reid opted to conference the bill informally, giving it the best chance of proceeding to an up-or-down vote in both houses.

But the Congressional leaders have been facing procedural problems and Republican objections over this process; for their part, Republicans are beginning to realize that Pelosi has every intention of pushing this legislation through this year, and that they are in danger of being shut out of the conference process if they remain obdurate. And both sides are being pushed by ranking members of environmental and energy committees, not to mention leaders of the renewable energy industry across the country, to just get off the dime.

Nor can conferees ignore a backlash of public opinion. This could be generated by a provision inserted into the Senate bill by Senator Domenici of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that could divert more than $50 billion of Dept. of Energy loans to new nuclear power projects, or the White House call for an increase in domestic energy production, which many observers have interpreted as a sign-off on dozens of new dirty coal plants and nuclear power stations as an alternative to real progress on renewables.

Finally, the entire issue of shaping a bill capable of passage in House and Senate is jeopardized by Republicans in both chambers having been ordered to toe the party line. This is causing heartache for many GOP legislators who believe in the bill, since the party line is firmly in favor of supporting the fossil fuel status quo. 

Activists for on-line campaigns supporting renewable energy, environmental justice and political transparency are keeping as close an eye on Capitol Hill as they have ever done in these critical weeks. They know, even if large numbers of Washington legislators don’t, that the final shape of the Energy Bill will show the world just how seriously this country takes global warming, and just how much we are prepared to do about it.

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