When the 118th Congress dawns, count on the Energy and Commerce Committee to strike a posture friendly to fossil fuels, back policies to support pipelines and revisit the topic of energy permitting.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the incoming committee chairwoman, said securing the country’s electric grids, making critical infrastructure resilient to cyberattacks and accelerating the permitting process will be priorities. “I think there’s an opportunity to do some permitting reform,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., a committee member, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Democrats are girding to defend two of the Biden administration’s legislative achievements, the infrastructure law and the new health, tax and climate law. “We passed the most ambitious Democratic agenda in many years, and the next two years we’ve got to defend it,” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said. “Here, it’s going to be chaos.”
Steps to lower emissions are likely to be back-burnered at the committee come January as House Republicans on one of their chamber’s most powerful panels use their newfound majority status to scrutinize the programs and policies of the Biden administration.
Lawmakers from both parties said Energy and Commerce could reach compromises on privacy issues, telehealth, rural broadband and drug abuse. But on topics that concern the environment or energy production, there will likely be little overlap.
Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., a midranking member by seniority, said bipartisanship on the committee has deteriorated this Congress. Asked where there might be agreement, Clarke said, “Hopefully we can agree that climate change is real.”
Rodgers, first elected in 2004, sponsored one of the bills central to what House Republicans characterized as a climate proposal. It would expand the production of oil and gas, which are heat-trapping fossil fuels.
The oil and gas industry was the No. 4-ranked industry this election cycle of those that donated to Rodgers, following health care, pharmaceuticals and health products and retirees, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
Her bill, sponsored also by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the incoming House Natural Resources Committee chairman, would approve oil pipelines, greenlight oil and gas leasing on federal lands and in federal waters and require the president to submit an “energy security” plan about oil and gas imports. It would also consider steps to increase domestic production of petroleum products to offset Russian imports.
President Joe Biden infuriated Republicans in early 2021 when he nixed a permit that would have allowed the Keystone XL fossil energy pipeline, a project backed by a Canadian firm, to operate. The president may grant or deny permits that cross boundaries of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.
Armstrong said the president should not be able to block a single project in such an easy manner. “We’ll want to do a presidential permitting bill,” he said. “The president can’t just stop a project that’s been working for 10 years with the stroke of a pen.”
Permitting deal may be in making
On permitting broadly, the at-large member for North Dakota said there could be a deal in the making, taking issue with what he considers Democrats’ selective approach to permitting.
“I think there’s an opportunity to do some permitting reform,” Armstrong said. “The difference between us and the Democrats on that is we want permitting reform everywhere; I don’t care if it’s a high-voltage transmission line from an offshore wind project or a pipeline in North Dakota.”
Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, a senior committee member, said he expects the panel to look at modernizing the country’s electrical grids, regulating self-driving vehicles and taking up a new wave of nuclear technology known as “small modular reactors.” He said: “Nuclear, I think, is something that we can start looking at.”
In an interview before the Keystone pipeline this month leaked about 14,000 barrels of oil into a creek in Kansas — the largest leak in the project’s history — Latta said, “I’d like to see us go right back after” approving the Keystone XL pipeline. “That would be helping Americans every day.”
Keystone XL is an extension of the original Keystone pipeline, which had 22 spills between 2010 and 2020, including significant spills in 2017 and 2019, according to a Government Accountability Office report published last year.
Calling administration officials in for hearings will also be a focus, Latta said. “Every subcommittee will be doing oversight,” he said. “I think we’ve only had the secretary of Energy in twice.”
Rodgers has taken umbrage at the Biden administration’s decisions to sell off 180 million barrels from the country’s national crude oil stockpile, which the Energy Department manages, despite a long history of presidents of both parties selling from the reserve for diverse reasons.
“What’s the plan? Congressional Democrats have blocked attempts in the past, when — when gasoline prices, oil prices were low in 2020, attempts, which would have made sense, to replenish the reserve then were blocked,” she said to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm during an April hearing.
The White House requested $500 million last month to modernize the reserve, and the administration said it plans to buy back oil when the American benchmark price hits $67 to $72 per barrel or less — $5 to $10 less than the current price.
In recent months, Rodgers has written to Granholm about damage to the facilities that hold the oil reserve and her department’s loan office, to EPA Administrator Michael Regan against lowering the standard for soot pollution and to Gary Gensler, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, in opposition to rules that would establish climate disclosure regulations.
“The committee has a history of being bipartisan, particularly on things like telecommunications and some of the environmental stuff, so I expect to find common ground, and then oversight will be a battle,” Soto said. “It will be a political circus.”
He said of the committee, “It’s got 40 percent of jurisdiction of all bills, so we have to produce as a committee or else the Congress doesn’t produce.”