Tone May Shift in Energy, Natural Resources Panels

Legislation on energy and environmental issues in the House next year — widely expected to remain under Republican control — will be driven in large part by the outcome of the presidential election.

If Mitt Romney wins the White House, GOP leaders on both the House Energy and Commerce and the Natural Resources committees will be charting a path for their standard-bearer's energy policies, which have been decidedly pro-fossil fuels and anti-Environmental Protection Agency.

If President Obama wins, House Republicans will maintain their role as critics and investigators, although their tenor could be less political and more forward-looking.

One issue that has been at the forefront of the Energy and Commerce Committee — the bankruptcy of federally backed solar firm Solyndra — could fade from view next year, particularly since one of the leaders of the probe, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., won't be back. Stearns lost his primary in August to veterinarian Ted Yoho. Either Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., or Michael Burgess, R-Texas, is expected to lead the panel's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Beyond investigations, the energy and environment agenda in the House would probably change focus under a Romney administration, with an emphasis on energy production, scaled-down regulations, and state-centric decision-making.

"You could see the committees making the case for more use of coal, making the case for much more state oversight and management of federal lands for resource extraction, and making the case for what the Romney oil and gas agenda would be," said Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist think tank Third Way.

The Natural Resources Committee, led by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has already been on that path in the current Congress. Although the committee makeup could remain much the same in the next Congress, change at the top is possible: Hastings has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who is retiring. Before he took the helm at Natural Resources in 2011, Hastings served on Rules for 10 years. If he returns, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, could take over Natural Resources.

"If [Hastings] goes to the Rules Committee, that could change Resources in a significant way," said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. Bishop is "a big believer that states ought to have more say" on energy development, Kish said.

Regardless of who wins the White House, both the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources panels will face some pressing issues, including whether and how to regulate the boom in shale oil and gas production from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The ranking member on Natural Resources, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is certain to press ahead with concerns about potential exports of natural gas. And the issue of nuclear-waste disposal needs to be addressed no matter who is president.