While President Bush gave only brief mention to the energy bill in his State of the Union address last Wednesday, debate over controversial energy items such as jurisdiction over liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) escalated on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House, as lawmakers there get ready to take up the energy bill anew.
"Nearly four years ago, I submitted a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources, a modernized electricity grid and more production here at home," Bush said to a joint session of Congress. "Four years of debate is enough. I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy." It was the only reference to the energy bill in the speech.
Christine Tezak, energy analyst for Stanford Washington Research Group, questioned whether the solitary reference in the State of the Union address was enough to mobilize lawmakers in support of energy legislation. "Congressional leaders have criticized the administration for not actively helping to muster votes to get this legislation enacted. We need to see more than a brief reference to passing a bill to believe that the administration has made that commitment before we start predicting enactment."
The conference report on the energy bill cleared the House of Representatives last year, but it got bogged down in the Senate. House and Senate leaders, in order to avoid a replay of last year, appear to have made energy legislation a priority item this session. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he expects the House to vote on energy legislation by Presidents' Day (Feb. 18). Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also seems determined to have early Senate action on an energy bill.
On the issue of LNG, former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham last Wednesday said that there needs to be a strong federal role in making sure LNG terminals get sited in the U.S. and expressed optimism that Congress will finally be able to pull a comprehensive energy bill across the finish line this year.
"I think there needs to be a real debate here or discussion of the proper role of the federal government in this [LNG siting] because I think the federal government has a responsibility to make sure that the country does have the energy security that we need," Abraham said in an exit interview with reporters in Washington, DC. "I really do believe that there needs to be a federal role in this process."
Abraham has been replaced by Samuel Bodman at secretary of the Department of Energy. Bodman, 66, was confirmed by the Senate as energy secretary last Monday, and officially took over the reins at DOE the following day.
"If we don't site LNG terminals in this country, on both coasts, and therefore with access to the gas from all parts of the world, we put America at risk -- a significant risk -- and so I think there needs to be a discussion of this," Abraham told reporters.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) has re-introduced legislation aimed at clarifying the federal role in the siting of LNG terminals and fostering expansion of the nation's capacity to import LNG. The bill is "exactly similar" to the one that the House lawmaker introduced last May (see NGI, May 24, 2004).
The measure (HR 359) would place jurisdiction for the siting of LNG import terminals with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ending existing jurisdictional conflicts; make FERC the lead agency for carrying out environmental reviews of LNG projects; clarify the role of states with respect to LNG import terminal projects; set a deadline of one year for review of LNG terminal applications; allow FERC to set a schedule for completion of all federal and state administrative proceedings related to an LNG project; and codify a FERC ruling exempting LNG terminals from the agency's open-access requirements.
Terry is "pretty darn confident" that most of the proposed LNG bill will be "strongly considered" for inclusion in the House energy bill, said Jamie Karl, legislative director for Terry.
Co-sponsoring the legislation, the "Liquefied Natural Gas Act," are Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Charles Gonzales (D-TX), Phil English (R-PA), Joe Wilson (R-SC), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH).
Meanwhile, Abraham, a former senator from Michigan, gazed into the crystal ball to try to gauge the chances for comprehensive energy legislation finally clearing Congress this year.
"The truth is the numbers now are such that an energy bill can get passed in this Congress," he said. "The numbers in the Senate now, it seems to me, make it very likely -- certain almost -- that we can pass a bill. I also think that ANWR will now have an excellent chance of being moved under a reconciliation budget process."
But Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), as well as other lawmakers, plan to do everything they can to head off attempts to open ANWR to oil and natural gas drilling. Last Wednesday, they introduced legislation to keep the coastal plain of ANWR closed to energy development.
The so-called Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act of 2005 is bipartisan legislation, with Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) the lead co-sponsor in the House of Representatives and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) the lead co-sponsor in the Senate. A spokesman for Markey said the legislation had more than 100 co-sponsors.
The measure is named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1960 set aside the core of ANWR, and former Rep. Morris Udall (D-CO), who in 1980 led Congress in doubling the size of the Arctic refuge.
"If Congress authorizes drilling in the refuge, it will scar an untouched landscape, evict wildlife from its traditional habitats, turn tundra potholes for ducks into catch basins for drilling wastes, and provide a precedent to invade every other wildlife refuge in the United States," argued Markey, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), chairman of the House Resources Committee, urged House lawmakers not to support the Markey measure, saying it "would lock away the energy rich lands of the 1002 [coastal plain] area that Congress set aside in 1980 for the purpose of energy development." Pombo's committee is expected to mark up the energy bill issues over which it has jurisdiction on Feb. 9, including ANWR.
While Pombo is a strong supporter of energy development in the coastal plain of ANWR, Markey counters that the refuge is a "national treasure" that should remain untouched. "It does not belong to oil companies. It does not belong to a political party. It does not belong to one state. It belongs to the public, to be managed for the enjoyment of future generations," he said.
"We do not dam Yosemite Valley for hydropower. We do not strip mine Yellowstone for coal. And we should not drill for oil and gas in the Arctic refuge."
The debate over ANWR promises to be a heated one in the new Congress. Given the clear Republican majority in both houses, many observers believe that this may be the year that Congress finally opens ANWR to energy development.
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