It was eight months ago that the U.S. Senate — in a display of bipartisanship that seems quaint by the measuring stick of 2016 — passed a broad energy bill.
The Energy Policy Modernization Act, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would address grid modernization, efficiency efforts and reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If passed, it would be the first bipartisan energy bill in almost a decade.
In May, the House and Senate began considering how to merge their two disparate bills. The Obama administration threatened a veto on the House version. By September, concern was rising that time was running out and the House bill contained several controversial provisions. And then came election day.
There are barely more than a dozen workdays in Congress remaining; lawmakers expect to close up shop on Dec. 16. Maybe in today's contentious environment, a bipartisan energy bill was always a political mirage. But strange things can happen in lame duck sessions. In 1980, before Republican Ronald Reagan took office, his incoming administration worked with Democratic leadership on a productive final stretch of the legislative session.
While most observers are expecting a fairly quiet final few days in Congress, a lot of work has gone into this bill and staffs have been working to reconcile versions. It is possible that a pared-back energy bill could still move. On the other hand, with Republicans now poised to control all three branches of government, they may surmise it makes more sense to try again next year.
"We're thinking that's not going anywhere," said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy, an energy efficiency nonprofit. "The Republicans think they can do better next Congress."
Arvin Ganesan, vice president of federal policy for Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy trade group, was less equivocal.
"It's unlikely the energy bill as we know it moves in the lame duck session," he said. There are chances for a "smaller, less controversial bill," but Ganesan said "structurally, odds are against movement. Both Democrats and Republicans would argue that isn't the bill they would have written."
Sen, Bill Cassidy (R-LA) got his American Energy and Conservation Act of 2016 to the Senate floor for a vote last week, five months after introducing the bill, but it failed to advance. The measure would have made changes to how revenues from offshore energy production are shared, but that was a hot button issue this session. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) was a strident opponent of changes he feared would expand offshore drilling. Following the vote, the White House issued a veto threat, citing "significant and long-term costs."
For anything significant to get done, there would need to be agreement among Congressional leadership and the Trump transition team. And while that's a longshot, government relations consulting group ML Strategies still sees it within the realm of possibility. While a defense bill and water resources may garner more immediate attention should agreement come together, the firm says the energy bill is among "various other measures that could see action before the conclusion" of the session.
"Staff has been working diligently over the recess on a possible compromise between the chambers' competing bills," the firm said in a research note on the lame duck session. "Given the election results, House Republicans may feel dissatisfied with a small bipartisan bill and choose to wait until next Congress to move forward with a larger measure."
Lisa Graves, executive director at the Center for Media and Democracy, said she sees little chance anything will happen legislatively. "I would be surprised in this climate if any legislation moved," she said.
But Graves, who worked at the Department of Justice during the Clinton administration, said administrative action is more likely. Right now, she said, it's "all about finishing regulations."
Last week the Department of the Interior issued a final Methane and Waste Prevention Rule which aims to reduce the amount of gas released into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations on public and Indian lands. Before that, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management finalized new rules governing solar and wind energy development on public lands.
"That's a sign of things moving forward, as is usual at the end of administrations," said Graves. "There is a lot of work that remains to be done."
What happens with the Clean Power Plan?
One of the biggest questions — what will happen to Obama's signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan — may be coming into focus. In a video released online yesterday, the president-elect vowed to boost the fossil fuel sector in his initial steps, tacking away from Obama's plan to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 32% by 2030.
"I will cancel job killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal, creating many millions of high paying jobs," Trump said in a brief explanation of the steps his administration will take in the first 100 days.
Trump has given few specifics about how he will accomplish these goals, but none of that can happen before Jan. 20. But between now and then, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals could issue a decision on the legality of the new emissions rules, which require states to develop a plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
If the court rules in favor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, then "a Trump EPA would essentially need to actively remove their support," said AEE's Ganesan. But that won't kill the rule, and with ample defenders in place of Obama's EPA, it is almost certainly still headed for a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court.
ACEEE's Nadel said Clean Power Plan is tougher to undo because it is a final rule. Trump could propose something much smaller to take it's place or roll it back entirely, but "it will take them a couple of years to do it," he said.
Silver linings for clean energy?
Environmentalists and clean energy advocates are struggling to find good news, but there are a few potential bright spots on the horizon.
Support for fuel cells, microturbines and CHP projects could be included in a tax extenders package Congress is still considering. "Prior to the election [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell expressed an interest in moving the tax package," said Ganesan. "Where it goes depends on who it makes more sense to negotiate with."
If they are not approved in the remaining days, the tax credits could also be affirmed retroactively.
"Trump does talk about infrastructure and so there is some possibility there. We're an efficiency organization," said Nadel. Large infrastructure projects, for example, would bring with them the chance for more efficient use of energy. But Nadel struggles for optimism.
"The devil is in the details, and I don't think anyone from Trump down knows what the details are," he said.