Two Senate committees have cleared bills crafted to address aspects of the Gulf oil spill. But whether those measures will become vehicles for wider-ranging energy policy, or climate-change provisions, remains an open question.
Some political observers are skeptical that the Senate will be able to approve any sort of wide-ranging bill in a congressional session that will be cut short by the mid-term elections.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill on June 30 that would toughen safety requirements for offshore drilling operations, provide adequate funding for more comprehensive inspections of offshore rigs and mandate reforms at the Interior Dept.’s former Minerals Management Service.
The same day, the Environment and Public Works Committee cleared a measure that would eliminate entirely the liability cap for discharges from offshore oil wells. The current limit is $75 million per incident.
Carol Guest, policy associate with the Alliance to Save Energy, says elements of oil-spill bills or other measures could be included in a broader energy package.
In particular, she cites a measure the Senate energy committee approved in June 2009 that includes renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and oil-and-gas drilling provisions. That bill, introduced by committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), also has the support of the panel’s top Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Guest says, “I guess if there’s one thing that’s clear is that ... Bingaman’s bill that passed the committee last June with bipartisan support will be the foundation for the [energy bill] that comes out.”
Guest suggests a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) on June 9 may be in the mix. That bill includes gradually tougher vehicle fuel-economy standards, energy-efficient buildings provisions, incentives to retire the oldest, worst-polluting coal-fired powerplants and increased loan guarantees for new nuclear units. No Democrats have co-sponsored Lugar’s proposal, however.
Jeffrey Shoaf, the Associated General Contractors’ senior executive director for government affairs, notes the Senate still must deal with 2011 appropriations bills and confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. With those items on its agenda and relatively few legislative days remaining, the Senate’s passing comprehensive legislation of any sort this year is unlikely, he says.
President Obama met with a bipartisan group of about 20 senators at the White House on June 29 to talk about energy legislation, but no consensus bill emerged from that session. Bingaman said, “Most senators there were in favor of bringing forward the strongest bill that we could and could get the votes to pass.” However, he said it was unclear which bill that would be.
Murkowski supported the oil-spill measure the energy panel just approved and indicated more needs to be done, saying, “This bill is just one piece of the oil-spill puzzle.” But Murkowski says there are limits to what she can endorse. She promises she will “vehemently protest” efforts to push “legislative agendas that have proven to have some very bipartisan opposition.”
Advocates of climate-change legislation may face the toughest road but are hopeful such provisions may yet be part of an energy package. Says David Hamilton, the Sierra Club’s director of global and energy programs, “There has been too much of a clamor in the nation for solutions to deal with our oil dependence and to create clean-energy jobs.” He says the question is how much Senate climate-change supporters will have to give up to get the votes to pass the bill. But, he adds, “We have not lost hope that [a final measure] can include carbon limits.”