Muckraker: Grist on Politics

With only about three weeks left before Congress adjourns for election season, energy is the hot topic on the Hill. Here’s where things stand:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders in the House have outlined a new energy plan that proposes allowing drilling 100 miles off the Atlantic coast and Florida’s Gulf coast. The buffer zone could be reduced to 50 miles if a state’s governor and legislature consent (which is a big “if”). The plan, which hasn’t yet been formally released, also contains increased funding for renewable energy. They’re calling it the “Comprehensive American Energy Security & Taxpayer Protection Act,” and it includes a number of measures that have stalled previously — curbing energy speculators, establishing a renewable electricity standard, and repealing subsidies to Big Oil.

House Republicans are unlikely to go along with the proposal. Last week, before the Dems officially unveiled anything, House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) made it fairly clear that his party wants its energy bill or no energy bill at all. Yesterday he criticized the Democrats’ new plan in a statement: “It leaves most American energy under lock and key when we should be doing everything possible to expand energy production, increase conservation, and promote development of clean, renewable energy. It would permanently lock up 80 percent of our nation’s offshore energy resources — holding hostage billions of barrels of American oil.”

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) says at least three proposals will be up for consideration, including the so-called “Gang of 10″ bipartisan compromise bill. Actually, now it’s a “Gang of 16″ — the original members have been joined by three Republicans — Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire, and John Warner of Virginia — and three Democrats — Thomas Carper of Delaware, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Ken Salazar of Colorado. This bill lumps offshore drilling in with funding for renewables, incentives to increase automobile fuel efficiency, and a repeal of oil-company tax credits.

Some Republicans have expressed anger at their colleagues for going along with the compromise. Plenty of Democrats are also miffed that this bill would not only open areas of the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling but support other fossil-fuel energy sources like liquefied coal.

Salazar defended the bill in a telephone conference with reporters today. “In my view, it’s comprehensive in nature and it moves us forward in the right direction, but the issue of drilling in the OCS even with the kinds of limitations we put on the bill are not without controversy,” he said. He hopes the “gang” will be able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the bill.

Reid has consented to the gang’s request for a day-long energy forum, which will be led by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on Friday. The Senate-wide meeting will feature testimony from energy analysts, academics, and corporate leaders who “will offer recommendations on how our country can achieve a more secure, reliable, sustainable, and affordable energy future,” according to a statement from Bingaman’s office.

“This critical discussion will provide a broad spectrum of views on how to tackle the difficult energy challenges confronting our nation, including economic security, national security, global warming, and ending our addiction to oil,” said Bingaman. “It will be an excellent opportunity for senators to listen, learn, and contribute firsthand to this important and timely conversation.”

Enviros, of course, aren’t happy about all this drilling talk. “What we’re seeing is election-year politics at its worst,” said Karen Wayland, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “No amount of drilling will lower prices at the pump, and the continued focus on drilling is a distraction from making real investments in a new energy economy.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope remains optimistic that, at least in the House, Democrats will wrangle a bill that is heavier on the renewable side than it is on the drilling. “We are working to ensure that the final bill’s focus is on real clean energy solutions rather than expanded offshore drilling,” said Pope in a statement. “While the final package will likely include compromise drilling provisions, it offers a chance for clean energy gains that would represent a giant step in solving our energy crisis.”

The American News Project has put together a great video highlighting how little drilling would do to lower gas prices, as well as the amount of money the oil industry has given to Republican candidates. It features regular Grist contributor Joe Romm, and provides some good insight into the current energy debate on the Hill: