Energy Bill 2004: Downsizing

March 9, 2004
09:54 AM
Congress can accomplish a lot by legislating our nation’s energy problems in smaller bites, rather than trying to swallow whole a SuperSized energy bill. Having tried and failed twice lately with 1,000+ page bills, it’s time for Congress to focus its efforts on passing the energy provisions that are both most effective and most widely supported on a bipartisan basis. That’s the view Sen. Jeff Bingaman advances in today’s The Hill. Bingaman is the Senate Energy Committee’s ranking member. Let’s Write Energy Legislation That Works Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) Congress is well into a session that will be made shorter by political conventions and elections. At the same time, a number of energy problems that have long been on the horizon are coming more closely into view. More than ever, we need to provide America with an effective, forward-looking energy policy. As we move into Spring, though, we seem to be further than ever from that goal. We have spent much of the last year with an approach to energy that has treated it either too simplistically, or with too much partisanship, or with too little regard for actually making a long-term difference to our energy future. The result? Both Houses of Congress appear to be locked into mutually exclusive positions on a comprehensive energy bill. And a new independent analysis of provisions in these bills – both the one favored by House Republican leadership and the version favored by Senate Republican leadership – has a very sobering message. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy, neither bill really changes our energy future. EIA is the closest thing we have in Washington to a “truth squad” on energy policy. In EIA’s own words, passage of the conference report that failed in the Senate last November would result in “virtually identical” energy use as would have occurred without the energy bill. “On a fuel-specific basis,” EIA concludes, “changes to production, consumption, imports, and prices are negligible.” To be sure, there are a few important caveats to EIA’s conclusion. By EIA’s own admission, its models do not encompass the issue of electric reliability. It was hard for EIA to put numbers on some of the energy efficiency provisions that gave authority to improve energy efficiency but did not set a level to be achieved. Such provisions probably have real value. But they are burdened with a lot of dead weight in the energy bill (S.2095) now on the Senate Calendar. Some of those dead-weight provisions, in addition to contributing nothing to our energy security, are highly controversial in their own right. On top of that, many important energy priorities of the “moderate middle” of the Senate were excluded in S.2095’s development. That probably means another long slog on the Senate floor to address all the deficiencies in this 1200-page bill, if we go to it. S.2095 seems to be an inefficient starting point for actually getting something done this year. It might be more realistic to look to the smaller set of key, broadly supported, and effective energy provisions and to enact them, either individually or in smaller packages. In this way, the Senate can focus on changes that would actually make a difference to our energy future. We would also likely save time by not hitting every hot button in energy and environmental policy at once. There are many plausible candidates for such treatment. They include electricity reliability language that has passed the Senate and House several times as part of larger bills. A stand-alone amendment banning price manipulation of electricity, more effective than anything on the topic in S.2095, was agreed to by the Senate by a vote of 57-40 last year. We can help produce more oil and gas in the Lower 48 states by helping the government manage oil and gas production on federal lands more effectively. Here, the greatest need actually is for more people and money to process all the drilling permit applications that already are backed up in government offices across the West. We could help ease our long-term dependence on imported natural gas by building a natural gas pipeline to Alaska. There is a well-defined set of consensual proposals for saving energy through increased energy efficiency; this same basic set of proposals has been passed by both chambers in the last Congress and this one. A balanced package of energy tax incentives that actually contribute to our energy security could be added to any of the several tax bills that Congress will consider this year. A renewable fuels mandate is widely supported. A renewable portfolio standard for electricity would create 44,000 jobs a year, and measurably reduce upwards pressure on natural gas prices. And a separate bill to provide for more research and demonstration on hydrogen fuel cells could easily pass the Congress. In sum, a lot could be accomplished this year by legislating on our energy problems in smaller pieces instead of one gargantuan bill. We ought to try it that way. By identifying the pieces of energy legislation that really make a difference and have overwhelming bipartisan support, and then focusing on how to enact them, we stand a better chance of having something concrete to show for our 3 years of effort on energy legislation.

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