Trace amounts of snark sneak past the censors undetected: a Congressional hearing in real life

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On Tuesday, 29 October 2013, I went to the Rayburn building to attend a hearing on the proposed North America Energy Infrastructure Act to restore Congressional powers to legislate cross-border (US and Canada, US and Mexico) pipelines for natural gas and oil, as well as power lines for electricity. (The hearing was about restoring Congressional powers. My attendance was in a note-taking capacity for the Canada Institute, and for entertainment purposes. Check and check.)

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In the interest of being on time, I looked up information on how to get into the Rayburn building. According to Yelp, it is a very confusing place, but it turns out that the people who wrote that lied, because it is not confusing at all. The rooms are numbered and it’s pretty straightforward. And the bathrooms are nice.

Aside: I bet a friend that I could go 10 minutes without hearing any comments related to my gender. At 8 minutes, I got in an elevator with two dudes and was told, for no clear reason other than maybe my hair / clothes / poise / generally put-together-and-cheery disposition, “We don’t mind being in an elevator with a nice woman like you.” Bet lost. Everybody lost.

Today, I’ll tell you all about the hearing to enable your own at-home enjoyment / despair about collegial dialogue (or parity in ethnic and gender representation) happening at the federal level in the U.S.

The discussion was, for the most part, people just saying whatever they wanted to say in their allotted five minutes and not listening to what anyone else said (including any witnesses who disagreed with their point of view). Real talk. That’s what it was.

In case you were wondering why the U.S. government shut down, wonder no more. The hearing was a lot like babysitting, except eventually my baby cousins will stop kicking each other in the head because they get bored and move on to other activities.

This commentary is necessary for my sanity. If you value yours, nobody is forcing you to read on.

The “North American Energy Infrastructure Act” proposes that Congress reassert the power to regulate commerce from the executive branch, per the constitution. (This negotiation of powers between the various branches of government is, appropriately, called a three-ring circus by Schoolhouse Rock.)

The Commerce Clause, Article I Section 8 Clause 3 of the Constitution of the United States, grants Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

This bipartisan bill, proposed by Mr. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Mr. Gene Green (D-TX), would: “require approval for the construction and operation of oil or gas pipelines and electric transmission facilities across the national boundary of the United States for the import or export of oil, gas, or electricity to or from the United States, Canada, or Mexico, and for other purposes.”

Mr. Herry McNerney (D-CA) listed several concerns he had, including the impact this bill could have on public health, groundwater contamination, global warming. He also listed the benefits of the bill in terms of business, national security, and employment. However, he urged thorough environmental review and public consultation.

In response, Mr. Green replied that none of the existing federal statues and requirements (including the Clean Air and Water Act, Fish and Harbors Act, etc. – I think he listed them all individually to be a wise acre and use up his five minutes) would be removed, and current regulations would remain in place. The aim of the bill, according to Green, is to take the role of approving trans-border energy commerce away from the executive branch of the US government.

Mr. Upton pointed to the regulatory limbo and 5 year delay of the Keystone XL pipeline as the type of cross-border situation that this bill would work to avoid, while maintaining environmental standards.

Mr. Lee Terry (R-NE) was pleased with this cross-party initiative.

A visitor from Kosovo was introduced for reasons that remain opaque.

Mr. Waxman (D-CA) emphasized the climate impacts that this bill overlooks, pointing to the Enbridge spill in Michigan as evidence of the environmental problems cause by current energy industry regulations. He called the bill a “zombie pipeline act,” much to the amusement of John Shimkus (R-IL), who chortled heartily at this comment.

The first witness, Mr. Jeff C. Wright of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, found the guidelines proposed by this bill to be quite confusing. In particular, he questioned the 120-day approval period, described in the text of the bill thusly:

(1) REQUIREMENT.—Not later than 120 days after receiving a request for approval of construction or operation under this section, the relevant official identified under paragraph (2), in consultation with appropriate Federal agencies, shall approve the request unless the relevant official finds that the construction or operation is not in the national security interests of the United States.

He questioned whether approval would be automatic after that period, and suggested that a 12-month time line would be more reasonable for FERC review of natural gas pipeline permit applications. Additionally, he asked what “national security interests” meant, and how this mandate could conflict with FERC’s mandate to act in the “national interest.” Some members of Congress questioned his credentials (with 34 years of experience at FERC) and reading ability (retorting that “everyone knows what ‘national security interests’ means!”).

Questions from the committee focused on the issuance of presidential permits. No one seemed able to clarify exactly what the 120-day period referred to.

Mr. Steve Scalise (R-LA) reiterated that this initiative is a good bipartisan bill that would enable greater cooperation with our neighbors, especially “our friends in Canada,” and lower energy prices in the north east. He also oh-so-helpfully told Mr. Wright to “go reread” the bill.

Mr. Paul Tonko (D-NY) focused on how the elimination of environmental review (with an unclearly defined 120-day period for something unknown) was not in the public interest, though it might be in the national security interest.

Mr. John Shimkus (R-IL) used his 5 minutes for questions to explain that he served in the military, state that “national security interests” is a “well-understood term,” and disagree with Tonko.

The “gentlelady from Florida,” Ms. Kathy Castor (D-FL- said this bill could be renamed the litigation bill due to the uncertainty around the phrases in the bill. She said that this uncertainty would not expedite international border crossings, but would cause further delays. She urged more work on the bill through collaboration and careful rethinking. She also asked the witness questions based on his expertise and actually listened to Mr. Wright’s answers without cutting him off, making her the most patient and courteous person in the entire room by about infinity million zillion hundred ten.

Mr. Michael Burgess (R-TX) said “I’m not a geologist” but this bill “seems logical.”

Mr. Pete Olson (R-TX) pointed out that “somehow crossing the border becomes an invisible wall” leading to longer wait times for permit applications for energy infrastructure, and urged strategic consideration for expedience.

Mr. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) used his 5 minutes to heckle and mock the witness.

Witnesses on the second panel were Mark Mills (Manhattan Institute), David Mears (Dept of Environmental Conservation, VT), Paul C. Blackburn (Blackcreek Environmental Consulting), Mary Hutzler (Institute for Energy Research), John Kyles (Association of Oil Pipe Lines), and Jim Burpee (Canadian Electricity Association).

Paul Blackburn shared Wright’s concern about the 120-period mentioned in the bill, but other than his remark the panel strongly advocated expediting the process of developing energy infrastructure in the interests of business, employment, and a “robust economy” (presumably synonymous with profit). Burpee suggested that there could be lessons learned from Canada for the U.S. to emulate in terms of expediting permit approval.

Mr. John Dingell (D-MI) expressed his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, gave a nod to the “modest problems” presented by this bill, used the very interesting (and perhaps unintentionally ironic) phrase “muddied the water” to refer to rhetoric (rather than oil spills), and advocated a transparent “look before you leap” review process (i.e. following the guidelines of National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, etc.) to avoid future problems like the Kalamazoo Enbridge spill.

Personal aside to people who kept referring to Quebec as “Montreal:” that’s not where the oil spill was.

For Canadian readers: in the parentheses after names, D stands for Democrat, R stands for Republican, and the letters indicate the state each member of Congress represents.

Interesting side note: there were six paintings of old white dudes on the walls. Also, all of the old white congress dudes kept popping in and out of the room (furthering my point that no one was listening to any one else. It’s hard to listen to others when you are not in attendance for the full period of the hearing.)

To everyone who made it this far: I am impressed.

To the surprise of no one, the following organizations sent letters of support for this bill: American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers; American Petroleum Institute; American Transmission Company; Chamber of Commerce of the United States; Frontiers of Freedom; Interstate Natural Gas Association of America; National Construction Alliance; and National Taxpayers Union.

Some members of Congress, most vocally Waxman, repeatedly raised the issue of global warming, but most testimony and the majority of the members of Congress indicated their hope that this bill would lead to greater market shares for US energy industries.

Based on this one committee meeting, the bill seems likely to pass, with “minor revisions” and some adjustment of terminology (i.e. “national security interests” and the 120-day deadlines) in light of vocal bi-partisan agreement.

But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

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2 Responses to Trace amounts of snark sneak past the censors undetected: a Congressional hearing in real life

  1. Judith Hazlett says:

    This is fascinating, Amanda; I’m especially impressed with your notetaking.

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