Energy bill mired in doubt

Published 4:47 am Friday, July 16, 2010

Staff Writer

As a majority of the U.S. Senate handed President Barack Obama another legislative victory by putting a period on financial-services reform Thursday, another of the White House’s priorities faced a less-assured future.
Though enthusiasm for energy legislation is getting a boost from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s unclear whether Senate Democrats have the votes they need to cobble together a bill and get it passed before the August recess, congressional sources said.
It’s also likely Democrats would partner with Republicans to get the 60 votes needed to push a bill into law, according to the sources, who spoke on background because they weren’t authorized to speak directly for their bosses.
One reported snafu in the process is a lack of consensus among senators in the Democratic caucus, but another stumbling block could be more regional than political.
Traditionally, energy policy has been shaped less on party lines than along regional barricades, one source said, adding that a lawmaker’s position on climate legislation could depend on whether his or her district is heavily served by, say, coal-fired power plants or other sources.
The Wall Street reform bill favored by congressional leaders achieved final, bipartisan passage in the Senate with a 60-39 vote, but a proposed new energy law could cycle through a tough struggle more than a year after the House moved on its efforts to combat climate change.
There are a number of dueling energy proposals in circulation in the Senate, including one put forward by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., has some clear priorities of her own.
“We must invest in sustainable, American-made energy that will put our country back in control of our energy future,” Hagan said in a statement released Thursday. “I am reviewing climate change legislation in detail, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to ensure that any final bill will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and strengthen our economy. I will also be working to ensure the legislation does not have an unfair impact on energy costs for North Carolina’s families and businesses or place our manufacturers at a disadvantage internationally.”
The Burr-Chambliss bill would set about boosting “the use of natural gas for heavy duty and fleet vehicles, expansion of nuclear power generation, as well as addressing spent fuel recycling, promoting electric vehicles and continued support for renewable energy sources,” an outline reads.
Burr-Chambliss would get to their end result partly by extending tax credits for natural gas and vehicles powered by alternative fuels, and by expanding a tax credit for electric vehicles.
Other senators have other ideas, and it’s up to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, to pull his more cooperative colleagues together.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Congress still has other pressing business before it, including appropriations that must be approved to keep government running.
The House already has done most of its work on crafting energy policy, but it doesn’t seem as if that chamber’s voluminous bill is destined to become law.
On June 26, 2009, House lawmakers passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act by a tally of 219-212, reads a statement from the office of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
“Americans need and deserve an energy policy that prioritizes clean, low-cost, domestic sources of energy,” Butterfield was quoted as saying. “ACES (accomplishes) this through the market-based approach to limiting carbon emissions, which grants businesses the flexibility to adopt cleaner energy sources and production techniques, and favors industries that are early-actors.”
Apparently referencing a hoped-for Senate floor debate, Butterfield said, “I would prefer that any Senate legislation reflect the House-passed legislation.”
Critics say ACES doesn’t do enough to cultivate domestic energy sources and essentially taxes U.S. manufacturers in the form of carbon-credit costs, placing American companies at a disadvantage in comparison to competing countries like China and India.
U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-N.C., did not vote for “cap-and-trade,” said Glen Downs, his chief of staff.
“Anything that would make you less competitive with foreign competitors in this world economy right now is a pretty bad idea,” Downs said.
The bill that left the House focused more on climate change than energy independence, said Downs.
Ken Willis, spokesman for Butterfield, wasn’t sure whether the Senate would take up a separate energy bill and send it the House for its members to peruse.
Downs and Willis indicated the House’s role in the process is limited at the moment, and sources said it follows that the real action — if it comes — will be on the Senate floor.
Whatever the case, there does appear to be some support for climate legislation in North Carolina.
On Thursday, a PRNewswire report said a poll of 711 small-business owners in the state showed “a clear majority” of those surveyed favored a clean-energy law.
The poll, carried out by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, was done July 7-10.
The poll’s margin of error wasn’t immediately available.