Senate energy efficiency debate becomes battleground

The Senate on Wednesday plunged into its biggest debate on energy policy in years, by taking up a modest, bipartisan bill that aims to boost the efficiency of buildings nationwide.

Despite the measure’s wide popularity and narrow scope, the Senate debate on the bill is poised to become a battleground for fighting out an array of controversial energy issues, including whether the Obama administration should approve TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Now, this little bill is loaded with symbolism, said Joe Kruger, energy and environment director at the Bipartisan Policy Center. It has become a test of whether the Senate — much less the entire Congress — can pass substantive legislation setting energy policy amid partisan bickering on oil drilling and environmental regulations.

“It’s taken on greater significance than it might seem (because) it has become a vehicle to fight out broader energy policy issues that people don’t agree on,” Kruger said. “There’s this hope that something this modest and common sense like energy efficiency can pass.”

Early start: Hydro & energy bills see early movement on Capitol Hill

Sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the legislation would force federal agencies to adopt energy savings techniques for computers, while encouraging more energy-efficient building codes and helping manufactures pare their power use.

“It will help create private sector jobs, it will save businesses and consumers money, it will reduce pollution and it will help make our country more energy independent,” Shaheen said.

As a legislative instrument, the measure is more of a gentle prod than a hammer, constructed around incentives and voluntary programs, rather than mandates. Unlike other government energy initiatives, the changes aren’t tied to costly tax deductions or federal spending. And the benefits would apply broadly, without being targeted to a single energy industry.

Kruger said it takes a “common-sense” approach: “It’s very modest, and it’s all voluntary,” he said. “It’s very much a product of its times in that there’s no huge pots of money.”

But as the first big energy legislation to hit the Senate floor in years _ potentially since the chamber passed a sweeping energy bill in 2007 _ the measure is widely viewed as a target for proposals on loosely related topics. Many senators are not eager to let energy legislation pass by _ no matter how small _ without trying to make it a vehicle for advancing their top priorities, even though supporters are pleading for the Senate to pass a “clean” bill with an overwhelming vote.

For instance, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he plans to offer at least one amendment addressing Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline that would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries if it wins the Obama administration’s approval. One of his options is a non-binding provision expressing the sense of Congress that the project is in the national interest, similar to a measure that got 62 votes earlier this year. Another, tougher possibility is a proposal that would require the government to approve the pipeline.

Hoeven and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., also may offer an amendment repealing a 2007 requirement that federal buildings stop using fossil fuels by 2030.

Fights over non-energy issues could cause the bill to capsize too. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., on Wednesday was using the efficiency measure to insist on a floor vote on a health care proposal.

Adding to the challenge: The Senate will soon have to turn to unrelated business, including legislation to prevent the U.S. from hitting a debt limit and a federal spending bill to keep the government running.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., described the obstacles on the floor Wednesday and decried “the political world we live in now.”

“We will work with managers to craft a way forward on this bill, perhaps, or we may have to take the bill down,” Reid said. “But we will make that decision at a subsequent time.”

Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said tacking on any controversial language could doom the bill and break apart a broad coalition of stakeholders tat support the measure.

“This bill is all very straightforward, or, at least, it should be straightforward,” Matzner said. “Energy efficiency is the definition of a no-brainer. It cuts pollution, and it saves people money.”

Senators should withhold controversial amendments not only for “the substance of the bill,” Matzner said, but also “to show that, especially around things that are so obviously popular and straightforward, the senate can get things done.”

New digs: Exxon shows off new, energy efficient campus

In a statement of administration policy, the White House touted the economic and environmental benefits of the bill.

“Energy efficiency is a large, low-cost, and underutilized U.S. energy resource,” the White House said. “Increased energy efficiency offers savings on energy bills, opportunities for more jobs, and improved industrial competitiveness, and it will lower air pollution.”

Not everyone is supportive.

Casting the bill as heavy handed, the Heritage Foundation urged senators to vote against the measure.

The efficiency measure “is fatally flowed because it is based on the idea that businesses and families will act irrationally unless the government intervenes,” said the conservative think tank’s political arm, Heritage Action for America. A host of new “wasteful programs” aren’t needed because businesses already have sufficient free-market incentives to increase efficiency as a means of driving down costs, the group said.