House Republican leaders are bringing a package of measures to the floor this week that they are billing as a remedy for EPA rules and other Obama administration coal regulations but which some in the natural gas sector, which is out-competing coal as a low cost fuel source, say could provide broader benefits for the entire fossil fuel sector.
While some gas industry sources say they are not taking the legislative package seriously because it is unlikely to make it through the Senate anytime soon, the overlapping benefits the two sectors stand to gain suggests opportunities for cooperation between the two industries despite their long-running competition.
"[The bill] includes very specific coal issues but also has a number of broader provisions that would address some of the challenges" facing oil and natural gas development, says one source close to natural gas producers. The source predicts few if any calls of support for the measure from the gas sector, but no real opposition either and says there is much for the natural gas sector to like in the package.
The measure is a compilation of five bills including H.R. 2401, which requires analysis of "cumulative impacts" of several EPA rules affecting the energy sector and H.R. 910, which would largely strip EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs). Those two bills have been combined with coal-centric language, including H.R 3409, which bars a Department of Interior rewrite of stream buffer zone rules affecting the coal mining sector, and a revised version of H.R. 2273 that reflects draft Senate compromise language limiting EPA's ability to regulate coal ash. The compilation also includes H.R. 2018 which would explicitly limit EPA's ability to independently reject state water quality standards as being inadequate.
Many of the proposals have already been approved on the House floor as stand-alone measures, several of which have also been subject to veto threats from the White House.
The natural gas sector source says the legislation, being dubbed the "Stop the War on Coal Act," includes provisions that have the potential to lower costs for fossil fuel producers as a whole, not just the coal sector.
For example, provisions requiring additional scrutiny of EPA's national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) could benefit fossil fuel interests broadly, despite the rhetorical emphasis on coal.
Specifically, H.R. 2401 includes a requirement that any modifications of any NAAQS be included in a suite of regulations to be analyzed for their cumulative economic impacts. That same group of regulations also includes any new source performance standards issued by EPA to GHGs for new industrial sources -- not just coal-fired plants.
The dual benefits the legislation provides highlights the common interests among the two sectors despite their long-running competition. In addition, the natural gas boom is bringing the sectors into closer geographic proximity that holds potential for both cooperation and conflict.
Some congressional districts that have long been dominated by the coal industry are now finding many gas producers are major employers. For example, Virginia's 9th District â€“ which is represented by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R) â€“ includes thousands of gas sector jobs, a gas industry source has said.
It is the coal theme, however, that GOP leaders are highlighting. In a Sept. 18 press statement on the legislation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), he referenced an announcement earlier this week by Alpha Natural Resources that it plans to close eight coal mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"House Republicans are taking action on the Stop the War on Coal Act this week to protect American jobs by blocking some of the Obama administration's most damaging new regulations and holding the administration accountable for the economic impact of several others," Boehner said.
While Boehner blamed environmental regulations for the closures, his statement was silent on the economic impact of low natural gas prices on the coal sector.
Given the legislation's limited prospects, many gas industry officials say they are sitting out discussion of the package. Several of the provisions face a tough road in Congress even after the November election, but could influence debates over deregulatory agendas in a lame duck congressional session and in 2013, sources say.
Another natural gas industry source declined comment on the particulars of the measure, saying "we really aren't following this issue closely, as it's more of a 'statement' by the House, and unlikely to move anywhere."
While one source close to the coal sector holds out some hope for action on the coal ash portion in a lame duck session, industry sources generally concede the broader legislative package stands little chance of enactment anytime soon. The source calls the measure a campaign event that "just happens to be occurring on the floor of the House of Representatives," and which provides a platform for efforts by the Romney campaign to galvanize concerns over the Obama administration's regulatory policies.
Despite the current campaign atmosphere, the coal industry source adds that the House bill provisions could wind up as a roadmap for a House GOP agenda in 2013 that could be newly empowered if Mitt Romney wins the election. If President Obama wins a second term -- and if Republicans prevail in their efforts to take the Senate -- those provisions also could create new headaches for the Obama White House as conservatives redouble their efforts to move the language as part of the appropriations process, the source adds.
But the first natural gas sector source notes that it will remain difficult in the Senate to pass legislative proposals -- deregulatory or otherwise -- unless there are 60 votes in favor of a measure -- a hurdle the source predicts will continue to pose tough obstacles for energy related legislative proposals next year.
Amendments submitted Sept. 19 to the rules panel for possible inclusion in the legislation underscore the extent of the election messaging, with both parties offering up several amendments that stand little chance of enactment in the current Congress. Rep. Rick Berg (R-ND) and others offered language that would allow states to revoke federal implementation plans from EPA for addressing regional haze. On the Democratic side, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) offered an amendment to create a renewable electricity standard, and another proposed amendment by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) would bar the Secretary of Interior from granting a coal lease to a bidder who fails to disclose information on their campaign and superpac contributions to federal elections.
The conservative group Freedom Works is sending word out that it will count a vote on the pending legislation on its scorecard for members that "support economic freedom," and the group is urging proponents of the measure to contact lawmakers and urge their support. But the liberal learning Center for American Progress is seeking to turn the pending language -- and particularly the portions attacking clean air and greenhouse gas rules -- into a political liability for Republicans and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In a Sept. 18 analysis the group says "putting poison in the air means more money for the Romney-Ryan campaign," and cites numerous analyses of campaign donations by energy interests. -- Doug Obey
Editor's Note: Congress Watch will not be published during the congressional recess which begins Sept. 21.