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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers, House Republicans unveil sweeping energy policy bill

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, questions a witness during a hearing at the U.S. Capitol in March of this year.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives last November after campaigning on promises to lower gas prices and boost U.S. energy production. On Tuesday, House GOP leaders unveiled their legislative plan to make that happen, with a Spokane lawmaker playing a key role.

As chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has shepherded 15 separate bills that make up much of the package her fellow Republicans have dubbed the “Lower Energy Costs Act.” Other components from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Natural Resources Committee round out the package, which aims to increase domestic mining and drilling while paring back regulations.

“From the gas station to the grocery store, President Biden’s war on energy is making life unaffordable for the hardworking people of this country and forcing us to be dangerously reliant on supply chains controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “We must reverse course.”

Oil industry analysts say rising gas prices have been caused mainly by business decisions made by oil companies in the wake of pandemic-related market disruptions, not Biden administration policies, while economists generally agree the massive pandemic relief spending Congress began under the Trump administration and continued under Biden has contributed to some degree to inflation in the cost of food and other goods.

Meanwhile, Biden shares the concern about China’s dominance in the global supply of critical minerals used for batteries and low-carbon energy production, a problem the president targeted in an executive order he signed a month after taking office. Democrats included tax breaks and $500 million in other incentives to support such mining operations – like the cobalt mine that opened near Salmon, Idaho, in October – as part of a bill they passed last August.

House GOP leaders have numbered their bill House Rule 1, a symbolic move lawmakers use to signal their top legislative priority in each session of Congress. It has no chance of passage in the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Wednesday the Republicans’ bill would be “dead on arrival.”

But by laying out Republicans’ vision for energy policy, the legislation will play an important role in the party’s messaging in the 2024 election, drawing a contrast with Democrats’ pledges to prioritize lower-carbon energy sources. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, voiced her party’s stance in a statement Thursday.

“Whether it’s investing in wind power or renewable grid integration, clean energy projects must be a top priority this Congress,” Murray said. “We need to be doing everything we can to cut costs for families and move towards a clean energy economy. HR 1 does not accomplish either of those things and is just a wish list for Big Oil.”

The Biden administration approved a controversial oil drilling operation on federal land in Alaska on Monday, angering environmentalists and undercutting Republicans’ claim that the Democratic president is an enemy of domestic fossil fuel production. That move drew criticism from congressional Democrats like Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who said in a statement the administration should instead be working “to stop runaway global warming from burdening future generations.”

With Biden unlikely to face a serious primary challenge if he runs for a second term, the president may be more willing to hew to the political center and work with Republicans on the kind of “all-of-the-above” energy policy McMorris Rodgers has advocated. In her statement, Murray said she is open to crafting bipartisan energy legislation, adding to the partisan “Inflation Reduction Act” Democrats passed last August.

“I know there are members on both sides of the aisle who are committed to passing a thoughtful energy package, and I am willing to work with anyone to get this done,” Murray said. “We need a serious, bipartisan package that builds on the Inflation Reduction Act to get clean energy projects online and tackle the climate crisis.”

One potential area of bipartisan cooperation is reforming the permitting process for new energy projects, streamlining environmental reviews that can add years to the development of both fossil fuel and low-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind. Last year, Biden got behind a permitting reform effort led by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that was ultimately blocked by progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans. In February, Manchin expressed support for a bipartisan permitting bill.

Other provisions in the GOP bill are less likely to inspire cross-party camaraderie. It includes a nonbinding resolution that condemns Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. It would repeal a fee on methane emissions Democrats passed in the Inflation Reduction Act, which penalizes drillers if gas leaks exceed standards set by the industry.

The package would require the Interior Department to end a pause on the sale of new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, a key part of Biden’s climate agenda that has been challenged in court. It would also block the president from banning the controversial drilling method known as “fracking,” a promise he seemed to make on the campaign trail before walking it back.

The legislation is slated to reach the House Rules Committee during the week of March 27, with GOP leaders hoping to pass it by the end of the month. While it has no chance of passing in the Senate, clearing the House could kick-start negotiations on bipartisan bills.