Congress could make big moves on energy policy next session, thanks to the boom in natural gas and oil production from shale deposits across the country.
The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling might spark the nation's first comprehensive energy law in five years, attorneys at Washington law firms say. New provisions could give a boost to energy production, while also including some of President Barack Obama's green-energy goals.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill now have a reason to review and reshape America's domestic energy production, as well as the country's role in the global energy market, said Joshua Greene, a former congressional staff member and entrepreneur who now focuses on energy and environment as a partner at Patton Boggs in Washington.
"I'm optimistic, I think others are optimistic of energy policy getting done," Greene said. "I think people are coming to the realization that, as it comes to not only our national energy security but our own economy, we have to do some pretty heavy lifting on energy policy."
Among the issues that could gain traction on Capitol Hill: creating federal standards related to the environmental effects of fracturing to replace the patchwork of state regulation, as well as provisions that would increase demand for natural gas such as opening up exports and encouraging use among passenger vehicles or purchases by the federal government.
Vast deposits of natural gas and shale oil are located in traditionally more liberal states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York meaning more Democratic legislators will have common ground with traditionally pro-production Republicans. The presence of these resources in several states where energy is suddenly a big industry, such as North Dakota, increases the number of senators who could support a bill boosting energy production in their states.
"Over time…energy will be an important component in many more communities' visions of themselves," said David Bernhardt, a former solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior who is now a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck's Washington office. "You have a potential to have some conciliation on energy and some progress made."
Added to the mix, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will have a new chairman, likely Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). He appears ready to aggressively push energy legislation and has a reputation for working well with the ranking minority member of the committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Wyden has already foretold plans to reshape the country's energy policy, which he says needs updating. He said in a statement on November 2 that the Natural Gas Act needs reconsideration because the free trade agreements included in it were adopted "before newly accessible shale gas became a strategic asset for the U.S." He wants to examine how exporting natural gas could increase the price domestically and hurt consumers and manufacturers. He also has a history of supporting green-energy initiatives. This year he sought, along with several Republicans, the extension of the wind-energy production tax credit and extended the tax credit for the purchase of new electric motorcycles.
Scott Segal, a partner in Bracewell & Giuliani's Washington office, said during a webinar last month that Wyden "likes to do deep dives on complicated issues," and likes legislation that focuses on fixing real problems.