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Washington Week: Committee vote on US Supreme Court nominee is in question


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Washington Week: Committee vote on US Supreme Court nominee is in question

Congressional lawmakers will deal with some weighty issues for the energy sector in the week of Sept. 17, including deciding whether to advance Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a Sept. 20 vote on Kavanaugh's nomination. Some lawmakers, however, have called to postpone the vote in response to a recently surfaced sexual assault allegation against the nominee.

If confirmed, Kavanaugh could have a major impact on energy and environmental regulations.

While serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kavanaugh has often sided with industry groups seeking to strike down more stringent environmental rules, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. He has also said Congress must clearly authorize federal agencies to issue major rules that have large political or economic significance, a position that some legal experts said could limit agencies' ability to tackle issues such as climate change.

During confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh said he is "not a skeptic of regulation at all," but agencies can sometimes improperly lean on legal precedent to promote environmental rules that can exceed the scope of the law.

Lawmakers seek probe of gas explosions

Congressional lawmakers pressed for an immediate hearing on a series of gas line explosions and fires in the Boston suburbs that killed one person, injured more than two dozen others and caused fires in at least 39 homes.

U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, and Elizabeth Warren, both Massachusetts Democrats, urged leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to hold a hearing on the accident and on oversight and regulation of the nation's gas distribution system. The committee has jurisdiction over the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, the latter of which investigates pipeline accidents.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce, said he hoped to hear soon from federal and state regulators and the companies involved in the matter.

"As the committee with jurisdiction over natural gas and the pipeline system that transports it, we need to understand what happened, why it happened, and ensure it never happens again," Pallone said.

The Sept. 13 explosions have been linked to gas distribution lines operated by NiSource Inc. subsidiary Columbia Gas of Massachusetts Inc. In recent years, the company has worked to upgrade its gas distribution system, including eliminating older materials and repairing leaks on gas mains and service lines.

Congress advances spending bills, hydropower support

As the start of the 2019 fiscal year looms, lawmakers are working quickly to finish appropriations bills for the federal government.

Both chambers of Congress approved legislation to fund the U.S. Department of Energy and related agencies during the 2019 fiscal year that starts in October as part of a three-bill "minibus" appropriations package. After forming a final compromise bill through a bicameral conference process, the Senate passed the legislation Sept. 12, followed by the House a day later.

The bill would increase funding for DOE energy research programs but excluded money House Republicans sought for the stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The legislation also left out a policy provision included in the House's energy and water spending bill that would immediately repeal the Obama administration's Clean Water Rule.

Lawmakers have also made headway on legislation that would streamline the licensing process for hydropower projects. On Sept. 13, the House unanimously approved water resources infrastructure legislation, including the Water Resources Development Act of 2018. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

The bill amends the Federal Power Act to lengthen the duration of preliminary permits for hydropower projects from three years to four years. The legislation would also allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend preliminary permits by up to four years compared with the current extension of up to two years.

In addition, the bill would establish an expedited process for licensing hydroelectric projects at nonpowered dams and seeks to limit final decisions on applications for closed-loop pumped storage projects to two years.

The bill's energy title would also amend the Federal Power Act so rate changes that take effect due to FERC inaction will be considered final orders, thereby allowing challengers to seek rehearing and court reviews of the rates. The proposal mirrors legislation introduced in response to a controversial ISO New England power capacity auction that consumer advocates said was tainted by market manipulation. FERC commissioners were divided on whether to approve the auction results, meaning the agency did not issue a final order that could be challenged and the new rates took effect by operation of law.

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US Congress

Sept. 20

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary will vote on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal agencies

Sept. 20

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will hold its monthly meeting at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Industry events

Sept. 21

The 2018 Virginia Offshore Wind Executive Summit will take place in Norfolk, Va.

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