December 13, 2023

House Democrats formally unveil vision for energy policy reforms

House Democrats formally outlined what they want the nation’s energy system to look like in a bill filed early Wednesday morning.

“We as Democrats have been too silent on what is Democratic energy policy,” Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) told The Hill. 

Casten framed the bill as his party’s answer to H.R. 1, the Republican-authored energy plan that sought to repeal tax credits for renewables and make it easier to drill for and export fossil fuels — fuels that America’s domestic grid is slowly moving away from.

“We know what the Republican energy policy is — it’s a policy that puts the interests of energy producers and energy exporters first,” Casten said. “There needs to be an energy policy that puts the consumer’s interests first.”

Authored by Reps. Casten and Mike Levin (D-Calif.) and signed on to by 74 additional House Democrats, the bill would create preapproved routes for major transmission lines on federal lands, provide a 30 percent tax credit for new transmission lines, give federal energy regulators the exclusive authority to approve major interstate power lines and involve communities in permitting questions at the outset.

It comes amid an ongoing debate about whether and how to reform the nation’s system for approving energy and other infrastructure projects. Democrats have broadly pushed for policies that support renewable energy, including a general build-out of power lines that they say are key to getting renewables on the grid and bolstering grid reliability.

Republicans, on the other hand, have sought to make it more difficult for communities to challenge projects they don’t like — in addition to including less politically feasible proposals to bolster oil and gas.

The Levin-Casten bill is similar to a discussion draft unveiled by the two lawmakers in April, with Levin saying the pair just made “tweaks here and there” in response to feedback.

In its current form, the legislation has virtually no chance of passing. Still, its introduction further solidifies a starting point for House Democrats. Senate Democrats have their own legislation with many similar goals to the Levin-Casten bill. 

Levin described the bill as a “consensus Democratic position.” Putting such a consensus forward “is all about making sure that any compromise includes the stuff that will move the needle on transmission and on building out the backbone for clean energy that’s needed.”

Levin said certain pieces of the bill could become law, pointing to proposals that pertain to grid reliability as possible points of agreement. However, he acknowledged that passing the proposal would require a Democratic majority.

Lawmakers have been at an impasse for several months, as Republicans have taken issue with Democrats’ push for transmission – citing concerns about the federal government’s role in approving power lines and how states share the costs of new transmission lines.

 It’s unclear whether or when lawmakers can resolve those issues — or whether there will ultimately be a bipartisan compromise package. 

Casten said the bill aims to shift incentives for utility operators who are reluctant to connect to another grid with cheaper electricity. Those operators might say, “‘I have built this [infrastructure] where I make money at $50 a megawatt hour — and now you want to bring $40 a megawatt hour power onto my system?'”

The new bill, he said, changes that math “so that when that utility agrees to interconnect their system, they have an economic interest in making that happen instead of an economic disinterest.” 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the bill would “help us build out the infrastructure we need to put clean energy in American families’ homes quickly, while also making sure impacted communities are brought into the process early and meaningfully.”

While the Casten-Levin package has broad Democratic buy-in, many of those members are unlikely to support a compromise push. Last year, a package led by conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) met opposition from dozens of House Democrats.

“We had set out in our mission to get a broad enough list of co-sponsors that spanned the whole diversity, ideological diversity of the Democratic caucus,” Casten said. 

While acknowledging that the bill stood little chance of passage in the current House, Casten said it would serve as an “anchor of democratic energy policy when a window opens up to have that conversation again.”

That preparedness is something that Casten said Democrats had “messed up” during the debate over permitting reform this spring.

Party members in the House, he said, knew the bottleneck in a clean energy build-out was transmission lines — but weren’t prepared with a coherent ready-to-go proposal when the Senate took up the question of permitting in April.

During that fight, he said, “There was an effort to say, ‘What is a permitting reform package that can pass the Senate?”

“And that is a fundamentally different question than saying, ‘What is the permitting reform package that will benefit American energy consumers?'”

The current energy system, Casten argued, prioritizes generators — meaning that the United States tends to incentivize the production of fossil fuel power, whether or not people need it.

Casten added that those fuels are increasingly intended for export rather than for Americans themselves.

“Cheap is clean,” he said, referring to how renewable energy consistently beats electricity from fossil fuels on price. 

By:  Saul Elbein and Rachel Frazin
Source: The Hil