Natural Gasbags

Senate Dems, Sierra Club, T. Boone shoot down energy amendments

In a marathon Thursday session over a highway transportation bill, Senate Democrats blocked three energy amendments, killing legislation to expand offshore oil drilling, push forward with the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and delay EPA clean-air regulations.

The Senate refused to delay Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial regulations on industrial boiler and furnace operators by a 52-46 vote. The amendment was introduced by Maine Republican Susan Collins, which would have given the EPA 15 months to draft new "least burdensome" rules on these operators.

Environmental groups, acting in concert with the natural gas industry, have heavily lobbied for the regulations. The Sierra Club and the American Lung Association took millions of dollars from Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest natural gas company in the U.S., to promote the EPA regulations and fight the coal industry.

Energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens recently donated nearly half a million dollars to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank with close ties to the Obama administration that has steadfastly supported the natural gas industry and the EPA’s regulations. Perhaps anticipating the move, Pickens was simultaneously lobbying lawmakers to pass expansive subsidies for the natural gas industry.

A 2010 study by the Bipartisan Policy Institute concluded the proposed rules could increase natural gas demand, particularly for some of the 578 major industrial boilers currently burning coal that may choose to switch to gas.

The regulations were first rolled out by the EPA last year and would require the industry to install technology to reduce soot and mercury emissions. The agency and Democrats argue the regulations will prevent premature deaths and improve productivity.

Opponents of the regulation say the new rules will cost the industry billions of dollars, and Republicans have derided the regulations as job-killers.

"Manufacturers want reasonable and achievable regulations," wrote Chip Yost, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Manufacturers Association. "They want some degree of certainty. They want government to quit trying to pick winners or favorites."

The National Manufacturers Association estimates the rule would cost more than $14 billion in capital and billions more in operating costs. One study estimates more than 230,000 jobs would be put at risk.

"This is a very modest bipartisan amendment that simply gives the EPA more time to get these regulations right and our struggling manufacturers more time to comply with them," Collins said on the floor of the Senate. "It's a false choice to say this is the environment verses the economy. We can have both."

Senate Democrats and the White House pulled off another narrow victory, voting down an amendment proposed by Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) to rush approval of the Keystone XL pipeline by a vote of 56-42.

President Obama personally lobbied Democratic Senators to reject the amendment in the days leading up to the vote. The White House is demanding TransCanada, the company proposing the pipeline, draft a new route through Nebraska.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the amendment, which would have bypassed State Department approval, "ineffectual, sham legislation that has no effect on the price of gas."

Republicans were quick to condemn the vote.

"The Democrat-controlled Senate just turned its back on job creation and energy independence in a single vote by rejecting the bipartisan Hoeven-Lugar amendment," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday. "They rejected legislation that would have led to construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the thousands of private-sector jobs that come with it."

But McConnell laid the ultimate blame at the president’s feet.

"When it comes to delays over Keystone, anyone looking for a culprit should now look no further than the Oval Office," McConnell said.

The Senate also killed an amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R., Louis.) to expand offshore oil drilling. Vitter’s amendment would have launched a five-year drilling plan, originally announced by President George W. Bush's administration in 2008, allowing lease sales throughout the Outer Continental Shelf, including off the coasts of Florida, California, and Virginia.

The Obama administration scrapped the Bush plan, keeping those areas off-limits. Environmentalists say more review is needed before expanding exploration.

Vitter said Thursday’s vote was a continuation of the administration’s hostility toward domestic energy production.

"The administration threw out the previous five-year plan and their new plan eliminates vast resources that should be available to our nation's energy producers," Vitter said in a statement. "Limiting Gulf of Mexico access as well as access on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts just perpetuates this administration's attempts to shut down offshore energy production."