Briefs: Energy Policy in the Lame Duck Session

With the election over, Congress has reconvened for a seven-week lame duck session. Among the energy measures expected to be tackled is legislation that would establish a framework for coal ash regulation. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to begin releasing pending rules again, and the wind industry continues pleading to extend the expiring production tax credit (PTC).

Divided Congress Could Spar over Coal Ash

The election that handed President Obama both an electoral and popular vote victory also saw Democrats increasing margins in the Senate, but Republicans kept a majority in the House of Representatives. The makeup of the Executive and Legislative branches stayed somewhat the same.

The House’s Energy and Commerce Committee will continue to be chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in the 113th Congress, while Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) will continue in his role as ranking member of the committee.

In the Senate, the retirement of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) means that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 113th Congress, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will continue serving as ranking member.

One bill pertaining to the power sector that could advance during the lame duck session is the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2012. The measure sponsored by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) calls for strong state oversight for storage and management of coal residuals and enables states to set up their own permitting programs that must be based on federal standards. The bill essentially seeks to prevent the EPA from regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

EPA Continues Work on Rules

The end of the campaign season means the EPA will continue efforts to finalize several rules applying to power plants over the coming weeks and months.

First, the agency must finalize fine particulate matter (PM. 2.5) standards by Dec. 14. That deadline was set by the D.C. Circuit Court in 2009, when it ruled the EPA had to reconsider a final rule issued during the Bush administration, in October 2006, because it didn’t offer enough protection. The EPA proposed revisions for the so-called "National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particle Pollution" on June 29, 2012.

While under a court-mandated deadline to issue air toxics standards for cement kilns by Dec. 20, the EPA is making strides toward finalizing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for new power plants by March. Last week, it sent the proposed final rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. Also to be released soon are final air toxics standards for boilers, which have been under review by the OMB since May 17.

Next year, the EPA is expected to finalize new source performance standards that would curb greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, and if Congress fails to pass coal ash legislation, an agency-promulgated rule regulating coal ash is also on the horizon.

Wind Industry Renews Pleas, Optimism for PTC Extension

Pleas to grant a multiyear extension of the wind power production tax credit (PTC) were renewed in the days following the election. On Tuesday, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in a letter to Senate and House leaders said the wind industry "urgently needs a PTC extension" before its Jan. 1, 2013, expiration to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio. "While the industry has lowered its costs significantly over the past decade, we believe the industry … will be competitive in the not-so-distant future with other well-established fuel sources," they wrote.

The governors, which head up the Governors Wind Energy Coalition, cited estimates that without a PTC extension, nearly 37,000 wind industry jobs would be lost. States are already seeing adverse impacts, the governors wrote, from companies like Vestas, Clipper Wind Power, Siemens, Gamesa, NRG Systems, and Iberdrola Renewables. "Without congressional action now, wind industry layoffs will accelerate and these private sector investment dollars will go to other countries."

Last week, advocates of the PTC extension expressed optimism that it would be renewed in the wake of successes by candidates who supported the measure.

“We heard a lot about wind energy in this election, and it proved to be a winning issue because it is so popular with the American people,” said CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Denise Bode. “As just one measure, an overwhelming majority of the members supported by our political action committee, WindPAC, won their races.”

AWEA said that of 12 new senators, seven received WindPAC backing this election cycle. Out of all the Senate candidates for this election cycle who were supported by WindPAC, 89% won their races. In the House, 88% of candidates supported by WindPAC won their races.

A bill in the House (H.R. 3307) introduced by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in November 2011 that would extend the PTC through 2016 has been referred to committee but made no further progress. A companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in March 2012 (but which only extends the tax credit until 2014) has suffered a similar fate.

Sources: POWERnews, Sen. Hoeven, EPA, Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, AWEA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)