The 114th Congress accomplished few of its oil and gas-related legislative goals, in spite of the fact that Republicans, who generally support fossil fuel development, held the majority in both the House and Senate – the first time since the 109th Congress (2005-07).
Energy was a major congressional concern in 2015 but received less attention in 2016, perhaps because it’s an election year. Other reasons may include low energy prices, expanding oil and gas exports and little demand for increased Canadian imports. However, there are still enough new and pending oil and gas regulations to worry industry and congressional Republicans. In addition, the 2017-22 Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing plan currently in development is receiving a lot of attention from environmentalists and from Congress.
Legislators introduce bills that reflect the interests of their constituents and issues that are in the news, whether of liberal or conservative concern. Legislation both supporting and opposing oil and gas development has been equally unsuccessful. The 114th Congress has passed only 2 percent of the 11,000 pending bills and will pass a few more after the election, which is consistent with the pattern of the past decade.
A couple of exemplary energy bills that are not destined to become law include the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness (FRAC) Act that would have regulated hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill, although regularly introduced since 2008, received little congressional attention this year. A pro-industry bill that will not pass is the American-Made Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 1330), which would have expanded offshore oil and gas leasing to the mid-Atlantic and California.
Another notable failure was Congress’ attempt to stop the Environmental Protection Agency Clean Power Plan (CPP) using the Congressional Review Act of 1996. Using this potentially powerful but little used authority, the House and Senate passed resolutions disapproving the CPP. The president vetoed both resolutions, and Congress did not attempt to override the vetoes.
Just as notable, there have been some important accomplishments by the 114th Congress. The ban on crude oil exports was lifted in December 2015 as a component of a bill that combined multiple appropriation bills to run the government through fiscal year 2016 and a tsunami of “tax extenders” that extend or make permanent expiring tax provisions, including renewable energy production tax credits.
Another success might be on the way.
The 114th Congress saw many bills introduced that would expedite the approval process for LNG export facilities. Now, one has a chance of becoming law as part of a comprehensive energy bill, but its path forward is not clear. Two comprehensive energy bills that passed their respective chambers (House Resolution 8 and Senate Bill 2012) contain provisions expediting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy review of LNG export facilities. A conference committee should meet to resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills, leading to votes on the compromise bill during the lame-duck session.
Another major congressional responsibility is oversight of the executive branch.
Oversight hearings help legislators understand issues that might require legislative action. In addition, they are an excellent way to inform the public and constituents about a legislator’s position on issues – an important consideration in advance of the November elections.
For example, the House Natural Resources Committee, subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, subcommittee on public lands, recently held hearings on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service changes in their land use planning process that impact sage grouse conservation and coordination with affected states.
Offshore oil and gas regulations and the 2017-22 leasing plan also came under congressional scrutiny. Congress and the public are concerned about whether Arctic leasing areas should be included in the plan (Atlantic areas disappeared from an earlier version of the plan). The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), heard from witnesses who described the value of Arctic oil and gas development to national security and the economic wellbeing of Alaskans – Arctic energy development would support the infrastructure needed to respond to spills and emergencies that will increase as the Arctic ice cover shrinks. Focusing on environmental protection, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), ranking member of the committee, and several witnesses spoke to the need to protect the arctic from spills, and even recommended ending oil and gas leasing on federal lands.