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This Week in Washington: Energy, water, solar, drought, ISIS and Ebola

Sept. 19, 2014
Senate Considering a New Treatment of Energy in Tax Code Rewrite. Water Featured Prominently in U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Bill. White House Announces Solar Job Training For Veterans. Regulators in Tennessee Look to Address Backflow. Legionella Strikes Australia’s Parliament. MMA Champion Talks Radiant Heating.

This Week. The House and Senate both passed a Continuing Resolution, which continues funding for the federal government until December 11. The House also passed an energy package comprised of several pieces of legislation previously mentioned in past Washington Updates.   

Next Week. The House and Senate will be in recess until after the election.

Energy Concerned about CR. Department of Energy Secretary Moniz voiced concerned over Congress's use of the Continuing Resolution. With the CR extending federal government funding until the lame duck session it seems to indicate a lack of long-term fiscal commitment and, without a sound budget, many agency-wide projects are put in hold. The balance of power in the Senate after the election will largely determine Congress's ability to pass a real budget or simply another CR.

Recess Appointment...Revisited. With President Obama’s recess appointments of Richard Griffin and Sharon Block to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, they must be confirmed again. This week the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted, largely along party lines, to approve Block to the same position. While the panel’s approval is a positive move for the administration, they still must revisit each of the 400 cases decided under Block and Griffin’s “unconstitutional” leadership.

California Droughts will Continue. Forecasts released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), predict droughts throughout California will continue. Many were hoping for a strong El Niño weather event to provide much needed rain, but the predictions are contrary to these hopes. All signs point to weak El Niño that experts say will do little to replenish water supplies in the region. Many members of the California delegation have been negotiating bills in Congress to provide subsidies to farmers and cities hit hardest by the drought.

Billions for Ebola. The Pentagon plans to ask congress permission to reprogram approximately $500 million dollars for combating the Ebola virus. This is in addition to the already-requested $500 million the Pentagon placed last week. With nearly $300 million already budgeted for fighting outbreaks, this brings the current total to nearly $1.3 billion in the fight against the virus already blamed for killing 2,400 people in Africa and more on the rise. This is an issue of international importance and ramifications. Just today President Obama signed an executive order directing the secretaries of Agriculture, Defense and Health and Human Services to create and lead a task force for combating antibiotic resistance.

Senate Passes Energy joke. As the Senate has become the forum to watch energy bills die this session, one bill seemed to pass with relative ease this week. The legislation (S.2440), which senators passed by unanimous consent Tuesday, would reauthorize a Bureau of Land Management program that provides funding for local offices to process applications for permits to drill. It also would increase the permit application fee from $6,500 to $9,500 and direct 75% of the revenue from those fees to the BLM office in the state from which the fees were derived. Major industry groups have been calling on lawmakers since July to prioritize this legislation after the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that fossil fuel production on public and Indian lands dropped 7% in fiscal 2013 from the previous year.

Senate Considering a New Treatment of Energy in Tax Code Rewrite. With speculation of a tax code rewrite next Congress, energy stakeholders are watching closely to see how their issues might be treated. This week it took an interesting turn as Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden hinted Wednesday that an individual fuel’s “performance” might be the barometer in determining how they are promoted through the tax code. Wyden has often touted “technology neutrality” for energy taxes as part of a broad rewrite of the tax code. In his comments, he didn’t define how exactly a tax code overhaul would consider the “performance” of an energy source, but he indicated that a resource like natural gas would likely do well under that approach. However, there are still issues to be worked out in the days ahead as the Senate will have to develop language that also promotes capital-intensive renewable energy projects without completely ignoring fossil fuels.

Obama Plan in the Middle East. Both the House and Senate approved authorization of President Obama’s proposal to arm and train Syrian rebel forces, which is one component of the President’s overall plan to counter Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) activity in northern Iraq and Syria. The votes were strongly supportive and bipartisan. This will be the only vote in Congress on any aspect of the President’s ISIS plans before the elections in November. We expect a debate in Congress over a broader authorization for a wider range of U.S military activity to be considered later this year and early next year. That vote will likely be more controversial and difficult. Its fate will depend in large part on the implementation of the President’s plans and strategy. If the strategy doesn’t appear to be working or is too slow to materialize, the fight over a broader reauthorization will be difficult and linger throughout 2015. This week, most members of Congress gave the commander-in-chief the benefit of the doubt at this early point in the implementation of the new U.S. plan. That goodwill could strengthen or dissipate depending on actions on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

Two-Year Push for Regulations. With legislative opportunities dwindling this year and continued gridlock likely in Washington, look for the Obama Administration to continue to accelerate its regulatory goals as a way of enacting policy changes. We mention it now because new regulatory proposals have to begin their long journey through the bureaucracy about now if they can be completed by the time the President leaves office at the end of 2016. From now until mid-2015, we expect an uptick of regulatory activity in various federal agencies. The regulatory push will be significant and involve environmental, energy, employee-employer relations and financial services rules, among others. The President could be a lame duck over the next two years in his dealings with Congress, but he will play a much more active role in the regulatory arena in leaving his mark.

Water Featured Prominently in U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Bill. Before leaving town, the Senate passed by unanimous consent legislation regarding Israel that included important water related language. The bill entitled the, “United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014” (S.2673) was introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer and garnered 80 cosponsors back in July. Included in the bill were provisions that called for “more robust academic cooperation” in areas that included water science. It also called for open dialogue, regular engagement and further cooperation between both nations’ government agencies and private sector organizations in, “issues relating to the energy-water nexus, including improving energy efficiency and the overall performance of water technologies through research and development.” The bill extends authority to transfer certain obsolete or surplus Defense Department items to Israel and make additions to foreign-based defense stockpiles for use as war reserve stocks through fiscal 2015. The bill was set to move in July but was held up after certain Senators felt they could not consent after the cancellation of a scheduled bill markup.

White House Announces Solar Job Training For Veterans. The White House announced this week a new job-training program targeted towards veterans who are transitioning out of active duty at three large military bases. The new training project will connect up to 30 motivated, tech-savvy military personnel at each base with SunShot-supported accredited solar training institutions. Ultimately, lessons learned from this first successful pilot will enable the Energy Department and military branches to expand solar training access to interested veterans. Service members in this pilot program will learn how to size and install solar panels, connect electricity to the grid, and interpret and comply with local building codes. This announcement is part of the Obama's administration to fulfill its pledge to make it easier, faster, and cheaper for Americans to choose solar energy. The announcement also noted that three of the largest U.S. solar companies Vivint Solar, SolarCity, and SunPower have already committed to interview graduating military trainees for employment.

Regulators in Tennessee Look to Address Backflow. Health officials in Tennessee have announced that they intend to revise their regulations governing food establishments. One of the priority areas announced in the released draft language is addressing backflow challenges. To solve this issue, they are turning to the expertise of the American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE). The draft language requires that an installed backflow prevention device meet the ASSE standards for construction, installation, maintenance, and testing for that specific application and type of device. This regulation was last updated in 2005, and did not adequately address backflow prevention. A hearing on the proposed regulations will be held in late October.

Legionella Strikes Australia’s Parliament. The health and safety of plumbing systems hit close to home for members of Australia’s Parliament this week as a strain of Legionella bacteria was found in the hot water system of the Parliament House in Canberra. The bacteria was found as building staff were conducting water testing as part of a building safety assessment. It continued to reassure legislative staff that building personnel, “had expert advice that the proposed approach is appropriate to address the issue." As water usage in buildings continues to evolve due to advances in water conservation, the spread of legionella as an unintended consequence forces the plumbing industry to watch closely.

MMA Champion Talks Radiant Heating. It’s 10 times harder to stay the champ than it is to become the champ. And sometimes all a champ wants is ... a radiant heating system. Victory Fighting Championship’s featherweight champ Ryan Roberts has had a long career. In eight years, he has racked up a 19-10-1-1 record. This week Roberts will be stepping into the cage at the Stir Cove venue inside Harrah’s casino for his third VFC featherweight title fight. “If I win this fight, I can buy the boiler and control for the radiant floor heating system that I’m installing myself in my new house ... so, with any luck, I can at least be able to purchase that. Then, we’re going to Punta Cana in November with my wife and my daughter for a wedding ... I’ll pay those two things off and be happy.”

Skipping Out on UN Global Warming Meeting. The heads of state from China and India have declined invitations to a major global warming summit at the United Nations later this month. But their absence, “should not be interpreted in any particular way because this is a summit in anticipation of the offers and the negotiations for 2015,” Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California said. China and India are the world’s No. 1 and No. 3 top emitters of carbon pollution, respectively, while the United States is the second-biggest greenhouse gas polluter. GOP lawmakers frequently cite those nations’ reluctance to curb their own emissions as a prime reason why the United States shouldn’t rush into any carbon policies that could hurt the economy. President Barack Obama is expected to attend. The administration is reportedly trying to pull off a “hybrid” deal that would update the existing 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in a way that wouldn’t require a congressional endorsement.

More Energy Sanctions for Russia. The White House announced its toughest round of energy sanctions so far on Russia, targeting Russia’s energy sector and citing Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to destabilize Ukraine. In a statement, the White House said, “We will deepen and broaden sanctions in Russia’s financial, energy, and defense sectors. These measures will increase Russia’s political isolation as well as the economic costs to Russia, especially in areas of importance to President Putin and those close to him.” The sanctions, which the European Union is expected to match, would ban energy companies from working with Russia on future oil exploration in the Russian Arctic, deep seas and shale rock formations, according to a U.S. official. Russia, which has a much smaller, less diversified economy compared with the U.S. and EU, has threatened to respond asymmetrically to the next round of sanctions, perhaps by banning Western flights over its territory, which would hit European airlines and U.S. freight firms. 

Senate Watch. Only two weeks ago, polling had the Republican’s taking the majority 52-48. Polling over the past week, however, now has the Senate in a virtual toss-up. Late Thursday, forecasts have 45 seats listed “likely” Democrat, with 47 seats “likely” Republican and eight seats a toss-up. Of note, Arkansas Senator Pryor (D) seems to be losing ground against Republican challenger Tom Cotton. Additionally, Senator Pat Roberts (R) was dealt a judicial blow this week when a judge allowed his Democrat challenger to be removed from the ballot, essentially moving an 8-10% block of projected votes to the Independent challenger. With this change, Senator Roberts is down nearly 10-12%. The fight for Senate majority is a battle worth watching on election night.

Dain M. Hansen is vice president of Government Relations for The IAPMO Group, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 202/414-6177.

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