Edward Niblock

October 20, 2014 | AD & Biogas

Commentary: Biogas And The November Election

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle October 2014

After a frustrating two years with the present U.S. Congress, it would be nice for the biogas industry to see hope for meaningful change in Washington, D.C. from this November’s election, but that is not likely. Most major policy initiatives will continue to come from the executive branch, to the extent it can act without Congress, and Congress will continue to be largely unsuccessful in attacking existing programs helpful to biogas.
The big story in this year’s Congressional election is the possible change in control of the Senate from the current Democratic majority to a Republican one. This would give Republicans control of both houses of Congress. Not all Republicans are hostile to renewable energy, of course, but it would be foolish not to recognize that the dominant view of renewable energy in the Republican party is dismissive at best, and that a fully Republican controlled Congress will pass more legislation disadvantageous to biogas development. House versions of legislation such as its Farm Bill last year, which cut all renewable energy programs, and its spending bills that cut $1 billion from the Department of Energy for renewables, might not be undone by a Republican Senate as they have in the past by the Democratic one.
However, very little will happen to the biogas industry, thanks to Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, which provides for the power of presidential veto. Every legislative attempt to roll back environmental protections, destroy programs that encourage biogas industry growth, or stop agencies from acting in a scientifically responsible manner will likely be vetoed. This is not because the President has a little “save biogas” card on his desk, but because these bills will attack a broad range of environmental protections and socially beneficial activities and thus be vetoed.
Reading the coverage of the coming election by media sources sympathetic to renewable energy and green causes, I see very little mention of this safeguard. This could simply be that “don’t worry the President will veto everything” does not fill a one hour talk show, as well as fears that this could depress turnout. I think most people are plugged in enough to process: “make sure you vote, but don’t worry, the sky is not going to fall if the Senate changes hands.”
Some might feel guilty actively hoping for gridlock in the works of government, but I fail to see how charges of obstruction could be fairly leveled in any direction after the last few years. It is worth noting that George H.W. Bush, faced with a Democrat-controlled Congress generating left of center legislation, vetoed 44 bills in a single term.
On a more hopeful note, a majority of Republicans in the Senate does not automatically mean a majority against renewable energy. Members of Congress get their views on renewable energy from their states and their districts as much as their ideology. Should the switch happen, it will be interesting to see which leaders within the majority party are driven by constituent agendas to focus on renewables, and perhaps biogas specifically.

Policy Riders

There is one minor source of risk to biogas from a Republican takeover of the Senate — in the spending bills the President will have to sign to keep the government running. These were basically the only bills passed in the last few years, and they were gut-wrenchingly difficult. One even shut down the government. If the Republicans control both houses, they will send the spending bills to the President with “policy riders,” basically little pieces of legislation that are not technically spending. The President can refuse to sign spending bills with really egregious riders, but he will have to accept some. Conversely, Republicans can only insert so many of these before they are accused of being obstructionist, so the biogas industry must hope its policies stay out of the crossfire. Thus far, biogas specifically has not attracted the ire of House members to the point of being a focal point for riders. Typically these are small, hot button issues, such as the Department of Energy plan to phase out incandescent light bulbs, which has been delayed by a rider for the past few years.
The biogas industry benefits from three helpful circumstances regarding riders. First, most of the programs directly helpful to the industry are very small (and thus not worth going after, such as smaller USDA and Department of Energy grant programs) or have bipartisan support. Second, some more general programs, like several EPA or USDA activities, are too big to cut in a rider. Third, some of the very large, high visibility EPA programs (such as the effort to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants) are key initiatives of the administration and likely to be defended with a veto threat. So while it is true that gaining control of the Senate allows Republicans to be more difficult about issues related to biogas, very little is likely to actually happen.
Finally, and this logically follows from the above, if the Democrats hold their majority in the Senate, not much will change either. The current situation is that supporters of biogas can propose policies in the Senate that will never pass due to the antipathy towards renewable energy in the House of Representatives. If control of the Senate switches, it simply becomes harder to propose these policies, which remain unlikely to pass the House.
For at least the past four years, the biogas industry, along with the rest of renewable energy industries in the U.S., has been fighting mostly a rear guard action in the Congress, desperately fighting to protect renewable energy tax credits, Farm Bill energy programs, the Renewable Fuels Standard, and other core policies. While this is going to continue for another two years, at least it is unlikely to get much worse.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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