Chances dim for big energy bill, officials say

Don’t look for a sweeping energy bill to arise from Congress during the upcoming session; although there is an outside chance of a deal on a carbon tax, former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said at a Nov. 16 forum in Washington, D.C.

Boucher suggested some fossil fuel interests might prefer a carbon tax to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases from coal plants. He also noted that a cap-and-trade bill, which had some coal-fired utility support, could only win approval in the House a few years ago.

The Democrat, who until 2010 represented Virginia’s coal mining region in the House for 28 years, is now a partner in the Sidley Austin law firm. Boucher made his remarks during a panel discussion at the National Press Club.

The event was sponsored by EnergyBiz Magazine, which like GenerationHub, is part of Energy Central.

While a carbon tax bill is possible, a more likely scenario is that most policy action will come from the executive branch. Boucher expects a final GHG rule in 2013 that will effectively prevent building new coal plants without CO2 controls. Boucher also expects an EPA greenhouse rule proposal on existing plants.

GOP will still fight EPA; coal industry forced to export?

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Power within the House Energy and Commerce Committee, agreed that a far-ranging energy bill is not likely. The Kentucky Republican does believe however that the public is tired of constant fighting.

As he has said before, Whitfield pledged to work with his Democratic counterparts on the Senate energy panel. Neither party is wild about continued gridlock. At the same time, neither party is apt to drop its core beliefs anytime soon, Whitfield said.

Whitfield said his panel spent much of the last session fighting EPA rules that hamper coal and other fossil fuels.

The EPA philosophy toward coal seems to be “if you are going to survive, you’ve got to export,” said Karen Alderman Harbert, president and CEO, U.S. Chamber Institute for 21st Century Energy.

The Chamber of Commerce official said Congress is the one government entity that can oversee energy policy in its entirety, no matter what agency issued what rule.

Too much of U.S. energy policy was drafted during a time when everyone assumed the nation was running out of fossil fuel, Alderman Harbert said.

Will energy incentives also fall off the ‘fiscal cliff’?

Clarence “Bud” Albright, CenterPoint Energy senior vice president of policy and government affairs and a former congressional staff director, said he is not overly optimistic that the federal government can avoid going over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

“I’m on the side of the pessimists,” Albright said. If the federal government is forced into a fiscal crisis in a few weeks then a wide variety of energy subsidies, from nuclear to wind power, could be endangered, officials said.

There is some optimism when it comes to incremental change, however.

Dan Reicher, former member of the Obama transition team and former director of climate change and energy at Google, touted the Obama administration’s embrace of new technology. This includes federal incentives for items such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) all the way to nuclear loan guarantees.

Reicher would also like to see Congress approve the use of master limited partnerships (MLPs) for renewable energy development. These are now only available to fossil-fuel based energy projects, Reicher said.

There was nearly uniform agreement among the panel members that the wind production tax credit (PTC) and nuclear loan guarantee program would avoid the budgetary axe.

Speaking of nuclear power, Boucher said he considers the Yucca Mountain waste repository a good project, but it is politically dead. That’s because both the re-elected President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are opposed to it.

Boucher noted there is some support in New Mexico for making the Department of Energy Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) available for interim storage of spent nuclear reactor fuel. WIPP now disposes of the nation’s defense-related transuranic radioactive waste.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.