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US House bills advance to enable FERC raises, bolster electric car deployment

A key U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee Jan. 9 approved by voice vote nine energy-related bills, including legislation to promote electric vehicle deployment and address a shortfall of engineers at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to review applications for gas pipelines and LNG export projects.

The nine bills present a "unique opportunity to reduce carbon pollution, create jobs and modernize energy-related infrastructure," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy.

The subcommittee approved H.R. 1426, the Timely Review of Infrastructure Act. The legislation, which is cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., and Pete Olson, R-Texas, would amend the Department of Energy Organization Act to grant FERC additional authority to adjust compensation for certain categories of employees and other personnel. The bill is aimed at addressing a shortage of qualified engineers at FERC that has resulted in a backlog of applications to authorize new gas pipelines, LNG export terminals, and other infrastructure.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Commerce approved a similar bill, S. 607, in September 2019.

Currently, almost 20% of job offers FERC makes to review pipelines and LNG facilities are rejected because private-sector employers can pay two to three times more than the agency can, Olson said. Enabling FERC to raise compensation for those employees "will clear hurdles to American energy development and ensure economic growth," he asserted.

The subcommittee on Jan. 9 also approved H.R. 3361, the Reliable Investment in Vital Energy Reauthorization Act, sponsored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. The bill would amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to reauthorize hydroelectric production incentives and efficiency improvement programs at the existing level of $10 million annually. The production incentives program applies to hydroelectric facilities that are added to existing dams or conduits.

Another bill that advanced with strong bipartisan support was H.R. 3079, the Energy Savings Through Public-Private Partnerships Act of 2019, introduced by Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. That bill would update the National Energy Conservation Policy Act to require federal agencies to perform energy savings projects using performance contracts. The bill would allow the federal government, which is the largest U.S. energy consumer, to pay contractors with money saved by reduced energy consumption, thereby avoiding the use of additional taxpayer dollars to fund the efficiency projects.

GOP unhappy with other bills

Despite bipartisan support for some of the bills, the subcommittee's GOP members were frustrated that Democratic leaders did not hold legislative hearings or take testimony from relevant federal agencies on several of the proposals.

Those bills "would have benefited from closer scrutiny in focused legislative hearings, where we could have examined more closely whether the specific proposals would effectively address the problems we are trying to solve," Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden, R-Ore., said during the markup.

One of the bills approved Jan. 9, the 21st Century Power Grid Act, would authorize roughly $1 billion to establish a program at the U.S. Department of Energy to provide financial assistance for grid modernization projects. Walden said modernizing the electric is a common goal for both parties, but questioned the need for additional federal funding for such projects as investor-owned utilities are already spending record amounts on grid and transmission upgrades.

"Reducing regulatory burdens and streamlining permitting sound more like the kind of policies to get where we want to go — rather than just increasing taxpayer spending," Walden said.

Republicans also took aim at a new proposal from Rush dubbed the New Opportunities to Expand Healthy Air Using Sustainable Transportation Act of 2020, or NO EXHAUST Act. The legislation would authorize nearly $50 billion in federal funding to promote domestic manufacturing and the use of advanced, fuel-efficient vehicles and zero-emission cars and encourage electrification of the transportation sector.

"The transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, emitting more greenhouse gases than any other sector of the U.S. economy," Rush said in introducing the bill Jan. 7. "This directly ties the planes and trains we ride, as well as the automobiles we drive, to the existential threat posed by climate change."

But at the Jan. 9 markup, Republicans asked why the bill emphasized the deployment of electric cars over other lower-emitting vehicle technologies and said a proposal that sweeping deserved legislative hearings.

GOP lawmakers also scrutinized a Democrat-sponsored bill, H.R. 5542, that would authorize $250 million per year in fiscal years 2021-2030 for incentives to upgrade natural gas distribution systems. One of the bill's cosponsors, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., said the bill would help replace aging pipelines while buffering low-income households from related rate increases.

But Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the energy subcommittee's top Republican, said the bill might interfere with existing state gas infrastructure replacement programs that "appear to be working okay." He also said that states and the DOE need to have a "seat at the table" on the proposal going forward.

"This legislation has not had a thorough review and input from states and agencies as it should," Upton said.

The nine bills approved Jan. 9 will now head to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration. A date for that markup has not been announced.