By Fawn Johnson
November 27, 2015 at 1:00 am ET
Republicans were in charge of both chambers of Congress this year for the first time since 2006. For the previous four years, the Democrat-controlled Senate was effectively shuttered to serious legislating because Democrats refused to let Republicans to turn every debate into a referendum on the Affordable Care Act. As such, no amendments were allowed. Everyone was frustrated.
When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) became majority leader of the Senate this year, he and then House Speaker John Boehner pledged a new and different Congress of lawmakers dedicated to hard-core legislating.
Energy was never intended to be a top-tier legislative item this year. Republicans’ approval of the Keystone XL pipeline made a big splash early on, only to be immediately vetoed by President Obama. The only energy bill that was actually signed into law was a noncontroversial measure to promote efficiency in water heaters.
The committees charged with energy and environmental issues kept busy negotiating bigger bills. But their unfinished work was just gravy, fodder for future conversations when legislators are ready to negotiate for real. In Congress, expectations on the energy front weren’t that high to begin with.
“Energy is generally a low profile issue unless there’s some sort of supply-side crisis or market crisis that elevates it,” said Frank Maisano, an energy analyst and founding partner of the Policy Resolution Group at the Bracewell and Giuliani law firm. “More people care about Obamacare. More people care about immigration. Certainly, more people care about ISIS.”
McConnell Throws Down the Gauntlet With Keystone
The Senate’s Keystone approval in January was a symbolic gesture, intended to rally troops on both sides of the issue. (It worked beautifully for environmentalists.) It was the first bill taken up and passed by a GOP-controlled Senate, with swift House concurrence. The move was intended to show Republican voters that their party’s elected officials could stand up to Obama. They could come together and force him to veto something.
Critics questioned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to make Keystone the GOP’s first priority. Was this really the most important issue for the caucus? It was first opportunity for Republicans to dig in to debates that they complained were squelched in the previous years. Taxes, jobs, and national security were at the top of voters’ minds. The Keystone debate seemed parochial at best, a nod to special interests at worst.
And yet the Keystone vote set the energy/environment tone for the rest of the year. It was a highly partisan one. Until that point, Obama had vetoed only two bills. One was minor, on notaries. And the other, on defense policy, was revamped and signed into law a few weeks later.
Keystone was different. It showed clear differences between the White House and Republicans on energy. Obama was focused on aggressive climate change measures. Republicans were focused on energy production, arguing that’s what the economy really needed.
That sentiment carried throughout the year. Obama eventually rejected Keystone’s bid to build the pipeline and faced a predictable chorus of verbal retribution from Republicans. Obama also unveiled his biggest environmental regulation to date, a Clean Power Plan designed to curb power plant carbon emissions. The rule, part of Obama’s energy legacy, will be in the courts until the end of his administration.
U.S. officials also will be in Paris in December hammering out a global climate plan that will face stiff opposition at home. Republicans will be there protesting.
All of this furor is about political messaging, not policy, according to Maisano. Keystone started it all. “They knew they were going to be able to make hay with it. They knew it was going to be one of those issues that they were going to have a conflict with the White House. They were in essence trying to force the White House’s hand,” he said.
Changes Happened Under the Radar
The real energy accomplishments from policymakers this year got little more than a shrug from the public or elected officials. They include a modest energy efficiency law that promotes energy-use benchmarking and paves the way for “smart” water heaters.
The bill cleared the Senate and House in the spring, with zero opposition. Obama signed it shortly thereafter. This happened only after utilities, manufacturers, and energy efficiency advocates got together on their own and agreed on how to adjust the water heater standards.
It was a win for everybody. It was the kind of standard that the administration had avoided setting, unsure of where to place the yardstick in a labyrinth of different stakeholders. Guided by those same stakeholders, Congress could step in. What’s more, the law was made just like the textbooks say it’s supposed to. Senate consideration. House consideration. White House signs off.
Too bad it didn’t do very much. When the water heater bill passed, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which lobbied hard for it, admitted that it would only have “modest impacts on energy consumption.”
“We call that a down payment. But it was the only thing that actually got enacted and signed. [There was] virtually nothing else,” ACEEE executive director Steven Nadel told Morning Consult in a recent interview.
Energy efficiency advocates got another low-profile win from the administration this year. The United States signed off on a global agreement to phase down hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, or HFCs, which damage the ozone. The language is part of the Montreal Protocol, the only United Nations treaty in which all 197 nations participate.
Again, the HFC agreement happened with a nod from industry participants. Earlier this month, the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute applauded the protocol language, saying that refrigerant producers and manufacturers are “proactively” researching alternatives to HFCs.
Maisano says the low-profile HFC agreement is a bigger deal than any environmental message the president was trying to send with his legacy power plant rule. “That is going to have way more impact on GHG emissions than anything the Clean Power Plan would do,” he said.
Laudable Committee Efforts Come Up Short
It’s hard to be overwhelmed by the rest of the energy actions of the Republican-controlled Congress. On its face, it looks like the Capitol Hill energy gurus worked really hard and didn’t finish their business. Both the House and Senate energy committees wrote and passed multi-faceted energy bills that critics derided as weak because they left out weightier, more controversial, provisions.
There is no timetable for the Senate bill. Certainly it won’t come up this year.
The House bill will be on the floor the week of Nov. 30. The vote, which originally was planned for late July, will come in the wake of a disappointing breakup of the coalition that wrote the bill.
Until a month ago, the Energy and Commerce Committee held together a bipartisan group of supporters for its energy legislation. Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) worked with ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) most of the year to craft it. The package would create an energy infrastructure modernization fund and update reliability analytics.
But when the full committee finally voted on the bill in late September, Democrats angrily withdrew their support over new language to expedite liquified natural gas exports and change the process for model building codes. Upton has said the legislation continues to be open for debate, but he will need to build back trust from Democrats and some advocates first.
ACEEE’s Nadel says he’s “not really happy” with the energy developments in Congress over the past year, even though the committees were more active than expected. “Everybody is talking about being bipartisan, and you know that broke apart in the House,” he said. “Even in the Senate, there is one poison pill.”
He was referring to the Senate energy bill’s language on home furnaces, which is a hot topic among efficiency advocates and manufacturers. The stakeholders are attempting to reach agreement among themselves on furnace efficiency standards, as they did with water heaters. Lawmakers have an unspoken agreement with this group that once they come to a consensus, the language can be codified.
But Nadel said the Senate bill doesn’t reflect the understanding that manufacturers and advocates are still negotiation. Instead, it simply says DOE can’t promulgate any furnace standards.
“It’s just bad form,” Nadel said. “The Senate language is a major step backwards.”
Toxic Substances Law Languishes
In another tale of not-quite-there, a separate set of lawmakers hammered out a long-overdue bipartisan rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act. That was no small feat considering the senator who was the driving force behind it, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), died two years ago. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and David Vitter (R-La.) took up the cause this year, along with Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) in the House.
The toxics bill is stalled. It sailed through the House but got bogged down in the Senate over an unrelated effort to re-up the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s not clear that the Senate will have time to work through the snag this year, even though it has enough co-sponsors to pass easily.
As such, the portfolio of Congress’s energy accomplishments can most charitably be described as incomplete. But it’s a mistake to say that it’s the fault of the energy chiefs.
“I think there’s a lot of hurdles in the way for them to move forward that they don’t have a lot of control over, honestly,” said Maisano. “The political atmosphere in the presidential election, the regional atmosphere, the way people are treating the Clean Power Plan. All those things tie into creating roadblocks toward finding a common ground on energy legislation.”
Fawn Johnson previously worked at Morning Consult as an editor for policy coverage.