Muckraker: Grist on Politics

After a day-long debate over energy legislation, the House passed the Democrats’ “Comprehensive American Energy Security & Consumer Protection Act,” a bill that both opens up new areas of the country to oil extraction and increases support for renewables.

“The energy bill puts us onto that path of independence by having a comprehensive legislation which is the result of a bipartisan compromise in favor of sweeping innovation solutions for America’s energy future,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a press conference on Tuesday. “It is imperative that we are energy independent, so we can enhance the prospect for a great future of renewables and creating good-paying jobs.”

The bill passed by a vote of 236-189, with 15 Republicans voting in favor and 13 Democrats voting against. The GOP crossovers were: Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Michael Castle (Del.), Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), Robin Hayes (N.C.), Bob Inglis (S.C.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Joe Knollenberg (Mich.), Ray LaHood (Ill.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Jon Porter (Nev.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.), David Reichert (Wa.), Christopher Shays (Conn). and Christopher Smith (N.J.). The Democratic crossovers were: John Barrow (Ga.), Lois Capps (Calif.), Donald Cazayoux (La.), Sam Farr (Calif.), Bob Filner (Calif.), Rush Holt (N.J.), Jim Marshall (Ga.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Steven Rothman (N.J.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Mike Thompson (Calif.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.).

Attention now turns to the Senate, where the chances of passing a similar bill are slimmer. And even if legislation clears that chamber, the White House has already threatened a veto.

The 290-page bill [PDF] was not formally introduced until 9:45 p.m. Monday night, though Pelosi released an outline last week. During Tuesday’s debate, House Republicans objected to the late release and short time frame for voting; they had fewer than 12 hours to read the legislation before the debate was set to begin.

The bill includes previously introduced measures to extend tax credits for renewables, establish a national renewable electricity standard, release 10 percent of the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, repeal subsidies to oil companies, and compel oil companies to explore on the land already under lease (“use it or lose it”). There are provisions to increase investment in public transit and encourage greater efficiency, as well as incentives for the development of “clean coal” technology.

The legislation also proposes allowing drilling 100 miles off the Atlantic coast and Florida’s Gulf coast, which is a concern for enviros. The buffer zone could be reduced to 50 miles if a state’s governor and legislature consent (a big “if” — many coastal states are opposed to offshore drilling).

The version of the bill released last night also includes a provision to allow states to decide whether or not to permit oil-shale development on federal lands within their borders, another provision that makes enviros deeply uneasy. The measure would affect the Green River Basin area of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

Republicans revolt

Despite the measures to make more areas available to oil and gas leasing, the majority of House Republicans soundly rejected the Democrats’ bill, a number of them deeming it “bogus,” “a sham,” or “a hoax.” They argued that the 100-mile buffer zone for drilling is too large, and that even a 50-mile boundary leaves the bulk of oil reserves off-limits. Republicans said that most of the recoverable oil is within that 50-mile zone, and argued that this bill would make that oil “permanently off-limits” (a stretch — like any piece of legislation, the mandates of this bill could be altered by future legislation).

Republicans also opposed the removal of tax breaks for the oil industry, and decried the absence of language that would share drilling revenues with the states. Instead, they demanded a vote on their American Energy Act, which is considerably heavier on the drilling.

“The Dem bill is a very watered-down alternative,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who alleged that the legislation reflected the views of “extreme environmentalism.”

Republican leadership indicated that they planned to oppose the bill before it was released. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement last week claiming that the Democratic legislation “leaves most American energy under lock and key.”

“The Democrats are so focused on saving the planet that they’re not focused on saving America,” said Rep. Phil Gingry (R-Ga.). Several Republicans argued that the bill should include “limits on litigation” regarding drilling, to prevent environmental organizations from suing to protect certain areas and enforce environmental standards.

A number of Republicans objected to the absence of tar sands, liquefied coal, and nuclear energy in the Democrats’ bill. Many complained that the drilling provisions did not go far enough because they didn’t open every area of the country for leasing, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaksa.

“The drill-nothing Congress has brought a bill that says drill almost nothing,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) during this morning’s debate.

The bill was debated under a closed rule, meaning no amendments were permitted. But shortly before the final vote on the bill, Republicans used a procedural motion to recommit, attempting to substitute language from a more pro-drilling bill proposed by John Peterson (R-Pa.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). That motion failed, and even Abercrombie voted against.

Dems on offense

Democrats were also on the attack, arguing that the Republicans did little to advance energy policy in the many years they had control of the House –- including the six years that they controlled the House, Senate, and White House. They accused Republicans of prioritizing the interests of Big Oil over the American consumer.

“This Congress is going to do what Republicans failed to do during a decade of leadership,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.). “Republicans just don’t get it … This plan is about the future and not about the past.”

“They’re saying, ‘Drill, baby, drill.’ What we’re saying is ‘Change, baby, change … innovate, baby, innovate,’” said Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Uneasy greens

Enviros, for the post part, sought to highlight the bill’s investments in renewables and efficiency, while expressing disappointment with the drilling and oil-shale provisions.

“This bill would address the high cost of energy today while laying the groundwork for a more efficient and sustainable energy economy tomorrow,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Like all compromises, it includes some undesirable provisions. At the same time, this bill would provide a big boost for renewable energy and efficiency, paid for by ending tax breaks for Big Oil.”

Some groups were willing to back the compromise on drilling in order to get the renewables.

“We aren’t wild about the provisions that would allow drilling off the coasts, but we do think it’s a much better proposal than the Republican bill,” said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club.

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder issued a statement this evening strongly opposing the measure. “The energy bill discussed in the House today falls far short of what this country needs, and its inclusion of offshore drilling actually moves us in the wrong direction. Debate on this bill has been a waste of energy and a waste of time,” said Blackwelder. “We strongly oppose this bill.”

Next steps

If energy legislation doesn’t pass this month, the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling will expire on Sept. 30. Congress has renewed its ban since 1981, and the president has maintained a moratorium since George H. W. Bush signed on in 1991. But his son lifted the executive ban in July. If the congressional ban is allowed to expire, drilling would be allowed as close as three miles to coastlines.

A spending bill must also be passed by the end of the month in order to continue government funding into the new fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Republicans have threatened to reject a spending bill if Democrats don’t agree to lift the congressional ban on offshore drilling, which would effectively shut down the federal government.

The energy excitement on the Hill will continue this week as the Senate takes up its own energy legislation, but the chamber is expected to have a tougher time making progress.