Despite the fact that the House was gone for most of the week, the past week was an eventful week in the energy/environment arena which included the President’s State of the Union address, a number of key announcements, and the announced retirement of climate change stalwart Rep. Henry Waxman (D-33-CA).
The House left early this week given the House Republican offsite “Congress of Tomorrow” retreat from January 29 through 31, where they focused on their 2014 agenda. Prior to their departure, the lower chamber passed the $956.4 billion farm bill 251-166. The bill, which contains an energy title, only included two regulatory relief provisions including a modified provision that creates an agriculture subcommittee on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Review Board. The second, in a tremendous victory for the timber industry, permanently bars the use of permits for forest roads and silviculture activities and permanently bars citizen enforcement suits for any non-permit measures adopted by EPA. The bill, despite the lobby from other interest groups whose regulatory relief provisions remained on the cutting room floor, is anticipated to easily pass in the Senate in the upcoming week.
Senate Democrats will participate in a retreat later in the week where they will hear from President Obama and former President Clinton. It is anticipated that much of their agenda will focus on the President’s middle class-related priorities, which was a predominant theme in the State of the Union. Republican Senators will also participate in an “issues conference” this week.
Energy and Climate Change Priorities Remain Front and Center on the President’s Agenda
Reiterating his focus, despite recent stakeholder group criticism, for his all-of-the above energy strategy, the President linked the U.S. commitment to domestic energy as one of the biggest factors in bringing more domestic jobs back to the United States. As part of his energy theme, the President touched on a number of energy sources including an emphasis on the further use of natural gas, which if “extracted safely” would serve as a bridge fuel for the nation with less of the “carbon pollution that causes climate change.” He also called on Congress to pass legislation that would provide jobs and would result in the development of natural gas fueling infrastructure that would transition cars away from petroleum and toward natural gas. Finally, he also called for smarter tax policy that transitions the country away from tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and toward industries, such as solar, that do need the tax incentives. Predictably, the President reiterated his focus on climate change and the efforts of his administration to set new carbon standard reductions for power plants. Poll results released after the State of the Union appear to indicate that the President’s disapproval ratings of 50 percent or more remain unchanged with voters.
Items of Interest
- Norman Bay Nominated to Chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.As speculated in 2013 versions of the Sidley Washington Energy Update, Norman Bay, current enforcement head at the FERC has been nominated by the White House to serve as Chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Sources indicate that much of Washington, including the current Acting Chair of FERC, was caught off guard by the announcement. Bay could see his confirmation hearing happen as early as March 2014.
- Final KeyStone Pipeline EIS Released: Earlier Conclusions Seem to Remain The Same. On January 31, 2014, the much awaited Keystone Pipeline final supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released. As anticipated, the central conclusion of the final EIS reflected previous versions and concluded “. . . that the proposed projects is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands . . .” This conclusion is consistent with a June litmus test issued by the President, which required that the project not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Once the Federal Register notice is published on February 5, 2014 a 30-day comment period will begin and will close on March 7, 2014. Press reports seem to indicate that the finding clears the way for a positive decision and approval is likely.
- Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee Reshuffling. With the confirmation hearing of outgoing Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, it is anticipated that the re-organization of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee could happen as early as mid-February. At that time, it is anticipated that current ENR chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) will hand over the gavel to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Wyden will leave ENR to become chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
- House Energy and Commerce Committee Clears H.R. 3826. Closely tracking the prediction of its House sponsor, Rep. Whitfield (R-1-KY), H.R. 3826 cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Electricity Security and Affordability Act, also popularly referred to as the Whitfield-Manchin bill, prevents EPA from promulgating a rule requiring new coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology until a set number of CCS projects are built without federal subsidies. The bill, while unlikely to be enacted into law, continues to advance the efforts of policy makers who remain very concerned regarding the irregularities surrounding the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards program. The bill could see consideration on the House floor by early March at the latest.
- Coal Ash Regulation To Be Released After the Mid-Term Election. Pursuant to a consent decree filed this past week, EPA has committed to issue a proposed rule regarding the regulation of coal ash by December 19, 2014. The Agency had issued a proposal in 2010 that generated significant controversy. The House has repeatedly passed legislation to address the issue. Movement on the Senate side of similar legislation has been problematic.
- Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 regarding the Safety and Security of Drinking Water Suppliers Following the Central West Virginia Water Crisis. The Subcommittee will examine the situation following a recent West Virginia chemical spill that resulted in contaminated water supplies in nine counties and impacted more than 300,000 West Virginians. Democratic Senators Manchin, Rockefeller and Boxer released legislation, the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, which would strengthen protections from chemical spills that threaten drinking water.