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Five Top Energy and Environment Priorities as Congress Returns

Energy bill, drinking water, Yucca, nominations and WOTUS

Washington’s Maria Cantwell, left, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are eager to advance their bipartisan energy bill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Washington’s Maria Cantwell, left, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are eager to advance their bipartisan energy bill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

With lawmakers returning to kick off the fall working session, energy and environment policies won’t be high on their to-do list, but their champions aim to fill any floor schedule gaps with measures that could provide some legislative accomplishments.

Here are five priorities they will push this fall:

Energy bill redux

The highest priority ready for the Senate floor is a wide-ranging and bipartisan energy and natural resources bill that builds off the stalled efforts in the previous Congress to update the nation’s energy policies for the first time in nearly a decade.

The lawmakers behind the bill — Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and ranking member Maria Cantwell of Washington — have been able to skip the committee process in favor of moving it directly to the floor’s pending business.

“The energy and natural resources bill has broad bipartisan support, and we hope it will be considered as early as possible this fall,” committee spokeswoman Nicole Daigle said in an email.

The 892-page bill includes measures to streamline permitting decisions for liquefied natural gas export facilities, bolster voluntary energy efficiency standards for manufacturing and home building, permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and increase cybersecurity coordination efforts, among other things.

Supporters will need to overcome a loss of urgency on a bill that barely missed out on becoming law. Questions about the need for the legislation after the Trump administration vowed to unleash “American energy dominance” will need to be addressed if lawmakers hope to get the bill to the president’s desk.

Yucca Mountain rising

House Energy and Commerce members, meanwhile, are pushing legislation for floor consideration that aims to solve the more than 30 year partisan deadlock over where to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste.

The site originally selected by Congress, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, was dropped in 2010 by the Obama administration, which deemed the site “unworkable” because of strident local opposition led by former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. In its place, President Barack Obama’s Energy Department advocated the development of a temporary storage site until a permanent site with local support could be identified.

The decision led to a stalemate over what to do with the radioactive waste now stored at the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants. The Trump administration has indicated it wants to to resurrect Yucca Mountain, opening up a path for an Energy and Commerce bill to restart activities to prepare the site through infrastructure improvements and financial incentives to build local support.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., improved its trajectory after Republicans reached a deal with committee Democrats that would authorize temporary storage sites to advance in conjunction with the Yucca licensing review. The bill moved out of committee with a 49-4 vote, where it now waits for floor time.

“We are actively working with leadership to get this legislation passed,” Energy and Commerce spokesman Dan Schneider said in an email.

Drinking water

Another bipartisan bill from the House Energy and Commerce Committee would boost the authorization levels for grants to improve clean drinking water systems.

Inspired in part by the lead drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and similar contaminations across the country, the bill would authorize $8 billion in capitalization grants to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2022.

The EPA estimates that $384 billion is needed over the next 20 years to keep the nation’s water systems running, and the American Society of Civil Engineers recently issued a report card that gave the nation’s water infrastructure a “D.”

“As this measure heads to the House for a vote, I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure it passes and we do our part to make sure the water Americans drink is safe,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden said in an editorial in the East Oregonian.


Several energy- and environment-related nominations were left hanging before Congress set off for the August break as lawmakers and the White House moved at sluggish pace.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set on Thursday to take up the nominations of Joseph Balash to be assistant secretary for land and minerals management, and Ryan Nelson, tapped to be solicitor, at the Interior Department. The panel will also consider Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre to fill positions on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Environment and Public Works Committee is also expected to consider the nomination of Michael Dourson to become EPA’s assistant administrator for toxic substances.

A number of nominees have already been cleared by their respective committees and now await a Senate vote, including:

  • Douglas W. Domenech and Susan Combs, as assistant Interior secretaries.
  • Paul Dabbar and Mark Wesley Menezes to be undersecretaries at the Energy Department.
  • Susan Parker Bodine, of Maryland, to be assistant EPA administrator.
  • Annie Caputo and David Wright to be members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

WOTUS rollback

The Trump administration is expected to continue efforts to rescind the Obama administration’s rule that broadened the kinds of streams and wetlands that fall under federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. 

Fulfilling part of a February executive order by President Donald Trump, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June released a proposal to rescind the rule, which is dubbed Waters of the United States or WOTUS. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has told lawmakers he wants to finalize a replacement rule by “the end of this year or by the first quarter of next year at the latest.”

Conservatives say the rule amounts to federal intrusion that criminalizes activities on private property and hampers economic development.

In Congress, riders in the House Energy-Water and Interior-Environment spending bills to ease repealing of WOTUS have become points of contention. Republicans included in both measures provisions that would authorize the Trump administration to dismantle the rule without undertaking statutory or regulatory reviews. Democrats say those riders would make support from the caucus almost impossible, warning that they would give too much power to the agencies and undercut the regulatory process.