Senate Pushes Up Agenda on Omnibus Energy Bill

Since the "near-term problems" involving the California power market and added funding for low-income energy assistance seem to have become less pressing, Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) announced last week that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will move up its consideration of comprehensive legislation that will address long-term energy issues.

The action by FERC last week extending price controls on bulk electricity transactions to the entire western region around-the-clock has invalidated, at least for now, the need for Senate legislation in this area, he said. Both Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), sponsors of a bill that would have forced FERC to impose price caps or return to cost-based rates, have agreed to put their legislation on hold "until we see how well that FERC order works," Bingaman noted. "I think that's wise."

Moreover, President Bush has reversed his position on more funding for the low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP), requesting an additional $150 million as part of his urgent supplemental appropriations bill, the chairman said. The House wants $300 million more for LIHEAP, and "we are trying to get an even higher figure agreed to here in the Senate."

Given these latest changes, "it is my thought that we should move onto the longer term issues" that were included in the Senate Democrat and Republican omnibus energy bills introduced earlier this year, Bingaman said during a hearing Thursday on the president's national energy policy. Prior to leaving for the July 4 recess, he said he planned to set a "tentative schedule" for hearings in July that will lead to a chairman's mark of a comprehensive bill.

"I do believe there's a lot of common ground between those two bills." In fact, he said there were more than "30 specific provisions" on which there's "pretty good agreement" between Democrats and Republican committee members. Bingaman urged both sides to review the list of provisions and report back, before leaving for recess, on whether they "would feel comfortable including [them in] a chairman's mark."

Some of the shared issues include review of the natural gas pipeline certification process; interagency agreement on environmental review of interstate gas pipeline projects; research and development for new natural gas technologies; R&D on pipeline integrity, safety and reliability; a power plant improvement initiative; and an extension of the LIHEAP program.

"My own view is that the list of sections...by itself does not add up to a balanced and comprehensive bill. There are other topics in both bills that might be fairly non-controversial that are not on this list because one side thought of them and the other didn't." Bingaman cited the research and development provision in the Democrats' energy bill as an example.

"There are also some very controversial issues that we need to do further looking into before, I think, we can come to closure on what we should include in a comprehensive bill," he said. These include electricity restructuring, vehicle fuel efficiency and global climate change.

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