House Considers Sweeping Energy Bill

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a long-awaited comprehensive energy bill late Monday that implicates pipelines, the electric grid and energy efficiency.

The panel’s Energy and Power subcommittee on Wednesday will mark up the 95-page bill that is designed to mirror a similar effort in the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats have thus far avoided loading the bill with partisan provisions that risk derailing the legislation- it steers clear, for example, of calling for an end to the 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil, language that might lead many Democrats to reject the bill if it were included.

A committee aide expected broad bipartisan support for the bill when the subcommittee votes. (Credit AP).

Still, the legislation addresses a number of policy areas that have long been simmering on Capitol Hill.

The bill seeks to streamline permitting decisions for interstate natural gas pipelines, a move that proponents say is necessary to ramp up infrastructure that’s failed to keep pace with the boom in shale gas production.

On electric reliability, the bill would give broad discretion to power plants to relax environmental rules “to meet the emergency and serve the public interest” if federal regulators deem electric reliability is severely threatened.

The bill also amends a 1978 federal law by directing electric utilities to develop a plan to withstand power outages, using as smart grid technology to remotely locate and repair problems, distribute power systems and self-sustaining “microgrids,” that exist largely apart from the traditional electric grid, by linking disparate energy sources. The change also implores state regulators to consider approving rate increases so utilities can pass costs onto customers to pay for those investments.

Another provision would give the Energy secretary authority to step in to declare emergency measures when the electric grid is under cyberattack. The move has been long sought by federal regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to clear up confusion the locus of authority of the nation’s electric grid infrastructure in such situations.

The nation’s emergency energy supplies and how they’re distributed also would get a revamp, as natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 exposed shortcomings. The bill  calls for submitting a plan to create a “Strategic Transformer Reserve” to place backup electric infrastructure in various locations in case major electric grid assets are damaged, a concern that’s mounted following an armed attack at a San Jose electric substation in 2013.

Lastly, the bill calls for studying regional electricity systems that might inform how best to build new energy infrastructure such as natural gas pipelines and transmission lines to connect renewable power to the grid.

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Senate Bi-partisanship keeps Hope Alive on Energy-Efficiency Bill

Ohio Republican Rob Portman and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen today reintroducing major energy legislation to cut energy use in commercial buildings, manufacturing plants, and homes, a measure the senators have floated in one form or another since 2011

The bill, despite buy-in from  business and environmental groups, has spent years ensnared in fights over more volatile topics like the Keystone XL pipeline and Obamacare. It has reached the Senate floor twice in the last two years, only to stall out.

Portman and Shaheen, who will float the bill with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, are hopeful they can convince colleagues to avoid letting it become a magnet for controversial amendments.

The Senate has gotten weeks of debates and votes on Keystone out of the way for the moment, culminating this month in a failed attempt to override President Obama’s veto of legislation to authorize the project.

Avoiding controversial amendments, however, would still not ensure the bill is opposition-free. Heritage Action, for example, has opposed previous versions that came to the floor, taking aim at funding authorizations for the bill’s programs and also arguing that the bill duplicates existing federal and state efforts.

The wide-ranging bill’s various provisions include: new and enhanced Energy Department work with manufacturers to develop and commercialize efficient technologies and industrial processes; stronger “model” building codes and assistance to help states and local governments adopt them; an initiative to train people for careers in efficient building design and operation; provisions to boost energy efficiency in federal buildings; language directing energy savings to be incorporated into federally backed mortgages to encourage greater efficiency, and more.

The two senators say the case for the bill is obvious. According to a summary from their offices, the measure would, by 2030, create more than 190,000 jobs, save consumers $16 billion a year, and cut carbon-dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 22 million cars off the road.

Supporters include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance to Save Energy, the Business Roundtable, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a broad suite of other groups and individual companies, including publically traded Westinghouse and General Electric.