The GOP's Annual Spring Ritual on Energy Could Turn Into Real Action This Year

Coral Davenport
National Journal

For years, congressional Republicans have observed an annual rite of spring, as predictable in Washington as cherry blossoms and tourist hordes. As gasoline prices climb ahead of Memorial Day, following a longstanding historic pattern, the GOP dusts off its traditional energy talking points, calling for new oil drilling and slamming Democrats for blocking energy production.

Although it’s a chestnut, the springtime drilling push tends to resonate with voters, pegged as it is to gasoline prices—the ultimate pocketbook issue. The messaging almost never translates to legislation—but it has politicized the issue of energy ahead of recent elections.

This year, the GOP has the perfect energy issue to push: the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial $7 billion project that would bring oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast—subject to approval from President Obama.

But Republicans don’t have the same historic pressures on their side: After spiking in the first quarter of the year, gasoline prices are actually dropping, from a national average of $3.83 for a gallon of regular the week of March 4, to $3.71 last week. Projections by the Energy Information Administration, the statistics arm of the Energy Department, indicate that gasoline prices could keep dropping throughout the summer.

The price drop is due to a mix of increased supply and flat demand, said Doug MacIntyre, director of the Office of Petroleum and Biofuels Statistics at EIA. In Texas, the company Motiva is dramatically expanding an existing gasoline refinery, bringing more fuel to the market.


Meanwhile, demand is lowering in part due to an increase in auto fuel-efficiency standards, the result of a mandate by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. And demand is also flat, said MacIntyre, “because of the non-robust economy.”

There are signs that absent the pressure of spiking gasoline prices and election-year politics, lawmakers may cautiously consider moving from energy messaging to legislating.

That doesn’t mean they won’t first make a valiant effort at moving the message. House Republicans are moving ahead this week with their annual energy push: The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on a bill that would strip the president of his authority to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, giving the final authority instead to Congress. The bill would also grant immediate approval of the permit. Republican leaders expect to bring the bill to a House floor vote shortly before Memorial Day weekend.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., the bill’s author, kicked off the springtime GOP energy-messaging effort last week, in the House Republicans’ weekly address.

“[T]he Obama administration continues to block Keystone, using every bureaucratic trick and excuse in the book. It’s now been more than 1,600 days since the initial permits were filed for building the pipeline,” he said. “To put that in perspective, it took the United States a little more than 1,300 days to win World War II, and it took Lewis and Clark about 1,100 days to walk the Louisiana Purchase and back. The Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer.”

Over the past two years, House Republicans have also repeatedly attacked the administration’s EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants, describing them as “job-killing regulations” that represent government overreach. EPA is currently crafting climate-change regulations that could freeze development of future coal-fired power plants, though people close to the agency say these aren’t likely to be issued until after the 2014 midterm elections. Without a slate of EPA rules to fight—yet—and without the pressure of rising gasoline prices, Terry said lawmakers might, “this summer, have a little breathing room and time to work on some real, big-picture energy policy.”

Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is assembling a group of members into a “House Energy Action Team,” or HEAT, in order to develop energy-themed talking points.

In years past, the HEAT has aggressively pushed legislation to expand drilling and roll back or block regulations.

And while drilling is certain to play a central role, McCarthy also said he’d like to forge messages in areas where members might actually find agreement with Democrats—including energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“Energy is the place where you can grab and piece together bills, find an area where you can reach an agreement,” he said. McCarthy acknowledged that that might mean dialing down on rhetoric. But, he said, “It’s not ideal to just do a piece but it’s better than not doing anything.”