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Why the Senate is likely to stay the course on energy policy this year

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, left, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., conduct a news conference in the Capitol after the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, April 20, 2016.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have wildly different views on regulating the oil and gas industry, but the energy outlook in Congress is unlikely to change much either way.

That's because Democrats and Republicans have been working together for more than a year to advance energy policy reform. The current bill — the Energy Policy Modernization Act — was written by the Republican Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell, so even if the Senate were to flip to Democratic control, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would likely push forward with the plan.

The bill acknowledges the shift toward renewable energy by requiring operators to upgrade the nation's electric grid and include more storage capacity to accommodate the growing amount of power generated by solar and wind sources. It would also build on energy efficiency programs for buildings.

Environmentalists won provisions like permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, while the energy industry would see the process for exporting natural gas streamlined.

The Senate is currently reviewing changes made to the bill in the House.

The best opportunity for this type of legislation to pass is under a Democratic White House with Republicans in control of the House and a narrowly Democratic Senate, said David Bernell, a political science professor at Oregon State University. In that scenario, all parties have to compromise, he noted.

My sense is if Donald Trump takes the White House, the Republicans will also be in control of the Senate. Then energy legislation will pass, but I think it would look very different.
David Bernell
political science professor, Oregon State University

It is of course possible that Republicans could be emboldened to pursue a more conservative policy if they retain control of both chambers of Congress and Trump wins the Oval Office.

"My sense is if Donald Trump takes the White House, the Republicans will also be in control of the Senate. Then energy legislation will pass, but I think it would look very different," Bernell said. "It will be much more oriented to the expansion of fossil fuels."

Most polls leading into the election suggest a roughly split Senate and a Congress in which Republican control is diminished to some degree.

The Senate's reform package has a better chance of passing this year than it does next, said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy.

There's the risk that Republicans drop the legislation if Clinton becomes president, because they do not want to be seen as handing her a victory, Nadel said.

Clinton has vowed to implement and extend many of the regulations and clean energy policies President Barack Obama has adopted using executive authority, but parts of her agenda would require approval from Congress. Those include a $30 billion plan to revitalize coal country as the nation shifts to other sources of energy, and a $60 billion proposal to reduce carbon pollution and expand clean energy through grants.

"Anything that's going to require new spending will need congressional approval," Bernell said.

Nadel said Clinton could secure support for energy spending by compromising with Republicans on measures that would give American companies a tax break on overseas profits, or on broader corporate tax reform.

Trump is betting that repealing regulations and promoting more drilling and mining on federal lands will boost America's fossil fuel output. However, many economists note that rising U.S. natural gas consumption is the primary reason behind the country's falling coal demand, not government action.