One of the biggest questions in the energy space next year is whether House Democrats and President Donald Trump will work together on an infrastructure package that would be acceptable to both of them, as well as the Republican Senate. Beyond an infrastructure bill, Congress and the administration are likely to take action on a host of other energy and climate issues in the new year.
Whether lawmakers ultimately make a deal over infrastructure remains to be seen. But it is a likely topic of discussion in Congress next session, not least since Trump has indicated a desire to act on infrastructure since campaigning for president.
Analysts were split on whether Congress would move on an infrastructure deal, with some noting that Republicans and Democrats may disagree over the details and funding for such a package.
“Everyone’s talking a different language” on infrastructure, said MWR Strategies President Mike McKenna, who was previously an external relations specialist at the Energy and Transportation departments and worked on Trump’s Energy Department transition team.
McKenna considered passage of an infrastructure package unlikely.
“It’s going to quickly become obvious that Democrats are talking about a green bill,” while Republicans and Trump want a bill for things like roads, and the two concepts are ultimately incompatible, he said.
An infrastructure initiative is also complicated by the slimmed-down congressional calendar ahead of 2020 elections, McKenna said: Anything that doesn’t pass Congress by December 2019 is unlikely to pass the following year.
Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund expires in 2020, with action expected next Congress to reauthorize the fund and possibly include additional infrastructure provisions in the legislation.
But it’s unclear what could be added to that legislation that could become law — and whether Trump is open to negotiating, said Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the NRDC Action Fund.
But Kevin Book, managing director of the research team at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, called it improbable for the highway fund would be used as a vehicle for a broader infrastructure spending bill.
Democratic green legislation
House Democrats are likely to hold committee discussions about a range of legislation targeted at climate change, which would do more to position them for 2020 elections than result in new statutes.
Under pressure from the progressive left, House Democratic Leader and Speaker-Designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to revive a select committee on climate change in the chamber, raising the profile of climate discourse on the Hill.
Democrats now appear to have “adopted climate policy as a wedge issue, as an opportunity to show their difference from the other party,” said Book, of ClearView. Potential hearings in a select committee could serve to drive Democratic voter interest and bring attention to climate at a state level in order to empower some new governors to address the issue.
”A lot can happen without legislation,” he said.
But observers disagreed on whether they believed House climate legislation would rise to a House vote or remain confined to the committees.
“Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to want to put the seats she just won on the hot seat” on a climate bill, Book said. “She’s got a much greater political game by holding hearings in a committee that doesn’t vote and using them as showpieces to drive enthusiasm for 2020” and spur state-level action.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has for years tried to pass modern energy legislation that would touch on many parts of the energy landscape.
McKenna, who was skeptical over action on an infrastructure bill, said he thought Murkowski’s comprehensive energy bill is more likely to see action, maybe as “a vehicle into which other things are poured.”
McKenna said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has been holding up passage of the legislation, but will lose chairmanship to Democrats next session. At the same time, Murkowski will be termed out of the committee chairmanship in 2020 and will be looking toward cementing a legacy, he said.
Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009-14, called it unlikely that a comprehensive energy package would be enacted next Congress. But he said some legislation on clean energy and climate-resilient infrastructure could get through.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Committee referred questions to the House Energy and Commerce Department. A spokesman for the Commerce panel Democrats pointed to legislation that House Democrats put forward in 2017 that lays out a broad infrastructure plan touching on many of the party’s priorities in that area.
I think we’re probably at the part of the festivities in the administration where the emphasis is going to be on finishing what you started.
MWR Strategies President Mike McKenna
Nuclear industry observers are confident their legislative successes this year could ride the wave of increased concern with the climate from Democrats to further legislative action.
Industry officials said Congress might act on a bipartisan nuclear energy bill in the Senate that would extend to 40 years the maximum length of federal power purchase agreements for public utility contracts and start a pilot program for that would allow the federal government to purchase power from a commercial nuclear reactor.
Analysts expect the administration to focus on wrapping up regulatory actions already underway that aim to scale back Obama-era climate rules, particularly as the agencies will face intense scrutiny before a Democratic House that promises to slow the pace on rule-making.
Among the top “replacement” regulatory actions expected are the completion of the EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy rule to replace the Clean Power Plan, looser fuel economy standards from the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration new methane rules; and a new five-year offshore drilling program at Interior that is expected to open more areas to potential oil and gas production.
“I think we’re probably at the part of the festivities in the administration where the emphasis is going to be on finishing what you started,” McKenna said.