The House Has Its Energy Bill, But Almost Nothing's In It

A narrow bite gets Democratic support, but a big-picture fight is on the horizon.

For months, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been talking up the promise of a "comprehensive" energy bill that would take advantage of the country's newfound reserves of oil and gas.

But even as Republicans and Democrats alike passed the fruits of that labor in a unanimous subcommittee vote, the buzzword "comprehensive" had been replaced with less exciting modifiers like "modest," "first step," and merely "good."

Despite talk of wide-ranging energy legislation, the 95-page bill that House Republicans unveiled late Monday night takes a narrow bite by side-stepping top-tier controversial issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and the repeal of the crude export ban. And Democrats say the bill misses the mark by not having enough language to expand renewables and increase energy efficiency.

Instead, the bill focuses on issues like electricity reliability by expanding the use of smart grids, expediting natural-gas infrastructure, improving cybersecurity language, and expanding workforce training. It all adds up to a bill that Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush compared to a cake still in the oven that "smells good but... ain't done yet."

The narrow bite is by design—Energy and Commerce members wanted a bipartisan agreement, at least to kick off the process. And bipartisanship on energy is hard to come by once you take even a small step into the details.

Even Ed Whitfield, chairman of the Energy and Power subcommittee and author of the bill, said the bill was filled almost entirely with "stuff that is not controversial" but that he would work over recess to get a "more comprehensive" bill.

"It's going to be extremely difficult to agree on everything, but we are motivated to do that," Whitfield said. "We do have some deep philosophical differences, but the issues are not that complex."

But the broad agreement over a watered-down package isn't likely to last. Members and staff will use the August recess to hash out a bigger bill, with the hopes of bringing it to the full committee in September. And there will be no shortage of big-ticket items competing for a spot.

Republican Joe Barton of Texas, for example, said that he'd had conversations with Whitfield and Energy and Commerce chairman Fred Upton about attaching his bill repealing the U.S. ban on crude-oil exports to the energy package, but he was told that the preference was to keep a "consensus bill that Democrats could agree to." He said there was still an opportunity to bring it back on this bill, along with issues like the Renewable Fuel Standard and Environmental Protection Agency rules, all of which are sure to raise partisan ire.

Although Barton's bill on the crude-oil export ban has more than 100 co-sponsors, including several Democrats, the issue is divisive and would have cost the bill the support of leading Democrats on the committee.

Instead, the Left has said they'd like to see the bill take a bigger bite on energy efficiency and expanding renewables, especially hydropower. Paul Tonko, a New Jersey Democrat, said that he wished the bill had done more to address the water-energy nexus and that he also hoped to bring more hydropower and other renewables onto the bill.

Frank Pallone, the committee's ranking member, likewise said that he wanted to see language setting stronger energy-efficiency standards. "I believe it holds the promise of a bill that we could support in full committee, but that's in no way a guarantee," he said.

In a sign of the troubled road ahead, environmental groups have already started messaging against the bill, despite commending Democrats for keeping some of the more controversial provisions off of it. Sara Chieffo, League of Conservation Voters' vice president of government affairs, said, "On balance, this draft bill puts a thumb on the scale for fossil fuels and could impede international progress to tackle climate change."

The Senate is also poised to release their own energy bill as early as this week—Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell have been huddling on a draft that's expected to cover several of the same broad topics, although the details of their bill are still being worked out. Murkowski, like her House counterparts, is a strong supporter of lifting the crude export ban, but Murkowski has said that even she is not sure it will be included on her own bill, in a bid to get Democratic support.