Energy Bill Negotiationsby CBB Staff
A key Northwest senator who will take part in House-Senate negotiations on the national energy bill this week said that both electricity and dam relicensing issues will be on the table.
The House this spring passed its version of legislation to implement President Bush's national energy strategy; after weeks of off-and-on debate, the Senate agreed to scrap its original bill and passed one it approved in 2002. The vote on July 31 was 88-14, with all three Democrats from Washington and Oregon opposed, and all three Republicans from Oregon and Idaho in favor.
Bogged down by partisan disagreements over energy policy and judicial nominations just as the Senate was preparing to break for a month-long recess, party leaders compromised by agreeing to revive last year's bill.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had vowed to stay in session as long as necessary to complete work on the bill before breaking for a month-long August recess. But one day before the last regularly schedule work day, he proposed reviving the 2002 energy bill instead, and Democratic leaders agreed.
"They made us an offer we couldn't refuse: our own energy bill," Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said.
Democrats earlier charged Frist had failed to allow enough time to debate some 300 amendments and interrupted progress by demanding action on judicial appointments. They said the 2002 bill, crafted when they were the majority in the Senate, was preferable to this year's version, which was hammered out largely by Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Republicans said they made the offer to pass the old measure in order to move energy legislation forward. They plan to restore major provisions of this year's bill when the House-Senate negotiating committee begins meeting. No date has been set, but talks are expected to begin after Congress returns from recess in September.
"It was obvious the Democrats were not going to let us move forward," Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said in an interview Tuesday. The 2002 bill is "a vehicle to ride to conference."
Craig said the 2000-2001 Western energy crisis made clear that new energy generating capacity is needed, and that the bill would encourage that.
Craig said this year's electricity title provision that would order the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to drop its proposed "standard market design" and prohibit FERC from acting on that or similar proposals for two years. The Bush administration deregulation plan is strongly opposed by senators of both parties from the Northwest, Southwest and Southeast. They fear deregulation will force public utility customers to share their low cost power or raise rates to private market levels.
Craig said the issue will be a "hot topic" in the negotiations with the House, whose bill would not impose the moratorium and is preferred by the White House.
In addition, the bill makes clear that FERC could not order the Bonneville Power Administration to join a regional transmission organization, and that expanded FERC authority over BPA transmission cannot supersede the requirements of the Northwest Power Act and other laws.
Craig said he would "fight to guarantee" the Northwest's preferential access to BPA power and has already talked to other Northwest senators about the upcoming House-Senate conference. He said he promised to stay in close touch as the negotiations proceed.
Craig said changes to the federal dam licensing and relicensing process will also be on the table at the conference committee. The House and Senate passed bills include similar reforms in the way federal agencies impose fish passage and other conditions on projects.
The changes would require fish, wildlife and land management agencies to consider alternatives proposed by dam owners if they meet environmental standards. Agencies would still have the final decision but license applicants would have the right to "trial-type hearings" before an administrative board or judge. Federal agencies could be forced to accept the alternative if it provided the same level of protection for resources, fish, and wildlife and either cost less to implement or result in more efficient operation of the hydroelectric facility.
The provision is supported by the hydropower industry and Northwest Republicans, while being opposed by Democrats, environmentalists and Indian tribes.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., had planned to offer an amendment to delete the Senate hydro licensing reforms, but was also negotiating with Craig on a possible compromise.
Craig said the two were close to reaching agreement and that he will continue to pursue a compromise during the conference committee, even though the Republicans will be in control. "I want to pass a conference (bill)" through Congress, he said. That means reaching out to opponents of the hydropower provision, like Bingaman in the Senate and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., in the House, Craig said.
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