OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DoJ suit stirs talk of Senate spill bill

Welcome back to OVERNIGHT ENERGY, E2’s daily roundup of the energy news you need to know and preview of tomorrow's action. Please send tips and comments to Ben Geman, ben.geman@thehill.com, and Andrew Restuccia, arestuccia@thehill.com. You can follow us on Twitter: @E2wire, @AndrewRestuccia.

State of play: DoJ suit revives talk about Senate inaction on spill bill

The Justice Department's oil-spill lawsuit filed Wednesday provided a stark reminder that Congress has failed to pass legislation addressing a number of issues that emerged in the wake of the BP disaster.

One big question going forward is how the billions of dollars in penalties resulting from the spill litigation will be used. Under current law, the money goes back to the federal government. President Obama has said he wants to direct some of that money back to the Gulf states, but that requires action by Congress.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson brought up that question during a press conference with reporters Wednesday. “Because of the severity of the spill and because this is an unprecedented matter, [the president has] called for a significant portion of any fine or penalty to collectively be put back and used for restoration of the Gulf coast,” she said, adding later, “It would require a change in the law in order to make that happen.”

The issue is very much on the mind of Gulf state lawmakers like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who told The Hill Tuesday that no oil-spill bill will pass the Senate without a provision that directs 80 percent of the penalty money back to the Gulf.

It’s unclear when the Senate will act on the issue, but the chamber is unlikely to address it this year.

On Tap Thursday: Interior, Energy chiefs to make renewables announcement

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will hold a joint press call Thursday and “make a major announcement regarding renewable energy development on public lands in the West,” according to an advisory.

On Tap Thursday II: The energy future revealed

The Energy Information Administration — which is the Energy Department’s independent statistical arm — will provide an early look at its 2011 Annual Energy Outlook. This closely watched report will forecast U.S. energy supply, demand and prices until 2035.


Upton ‘much closer' to Energy and Commerce Committee decisions

Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) says he’s on the cusp of announcing decisions about who will lead the powerful panel’s subcommittees.

“Soon — not today, but we are getting much closer,” Upton said in the Capitol Wednesday.

Barton may get special ‘emeritus’ slot

Upton may give Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) — who he defeated in the bitter fight for the gavel — a special chairman emeritus role. A lobbyist familiar with the plan said Barton would have two staff members as well as a spot on all the subcommittees.

Upton declined to discuss the ‘emeritus’ role for Barton, who served as chairman for one term and then the ranking member after Republicans lost their majority in 2006. But he didn’t deny it either. “I will wait to confirm all of that later,” Upton said.

Longtime Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) received an emeritus title — allowing him to serve on all the subcommittees — after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) outsed him before the start of the current Congress.

“I think that if you see how former chairmen have been treated, I would hope that that same honorable treatment would be rendered to Joe Barton,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) in the Capitol Wednesday.

Barton did not confirm or deny that the spot is in the offing. “Whatever Chairman Upton wants me to do, I have told him I will do, so it is his call,” Barton told reporters, later adding, “These decisions are his decisions and he needs to tell you folks, not me.”

SEC floats draft rules on oil, mining payments disclosure

The Securities and Exchange Commission released draft rules Wednesday that will force oil and mining companies to provide the SEC with data on payments made to foreign governments related to projects in their countries.

Industry groups fear the rules — which are required under the Wall Street reform law — will harm their ability to compete for projects. Big oil companies are pressing the SEC for several exemptions from the mandates.

The SEC is taking comment until the end of January. The 102-page proposal seeks comment on whether the regulators should allow various exceptions and exemptions. For instance, it asks, “Should the Commission include an exception to the requirement to disclose the payment information if the laws of a host country prohibit the resource extraction issuer from disclosing the information?”

Murkowski says ‘rare earth’ report proves need for U.S. mining

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — is happy with the Energy Department’s report on the risks of rare-earth element supply disruptions.

But she quickly used the report on the materials — which are vital to manufacturing several low-carbon energy technologies — to call on the Obama administration to spur U.S. mining.

“[Energy] Secretary Chu deserves to be commended for his leadership in producing this comprehensive and useful report identifying the challenges we face as a nation in securing the raw materials vital to the advancement of cleaner energy. Now it’s time for the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to play a similarly constructive role in confronting the mineral supply challenges that could derail the clean energy technology objectives that we all share,” said Murkowski, who has floated legislation to bolster production.

Ethanol tax credits, renewable power grants on the march in tax package

The Senate easily cleared legislation Wednesday that extends Bush-era tax cuts — a package that also extends ethanol incentives and availability of Treasury Department grants for renewable electricity projects.

The vote was 81-19, and the measure appears likely to clear the House Thursday. The measure extends the ethanol blender’s credit and the import tariff (which protects domestic producers) at their current levels for one year.

Ethanol industry claims victory ...

“The Senate appropriately recognized the economic value of domestic ethanol production. Extending these key incentives for American ethanol production and use will help save American jobs and provide the market stability allowing the industry to continue to grow,” said Renewable Fuels Association CEO Bob Dinneen in a statement.

... while Feinstein looks ahead to next year’s battle

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who led the failed charge to strip or at least reduce the ethanol supports, said she will quickly renew the fight next year.

“It is a colossal waste of money in my view. No industry is subsidized in three different ways in the way ethanol is. It is unfair,” she said Wednesday. “I think that we should take a look at that. I think ethanol stands on its own. I don’t think it needs the subsidies,” Feinstein added.

Oil industry slams omnibus appropriations bill

The American Petroleum Institute blasted the omnibus appropriations bill released Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee for extending the Interior Departments review period for offshore drilling projects by 60 days.

“The arbitrary extension of the review period for oil and natural gas exploration plans will create additional uncertainty at a time when we most need clarity and stability,” API Senior Director of Federal Relations Con Lass said in a statement. “A more lengthy review period is unnecessary given the current review period already required for these permits, and this is a step in the wrong direction.”

Murkowski and Landrieu raised similar concerns about the extension of the review period last week, but Obama administration officials say the extension is necessary to ensure that exploration plans meet regulations. The House continuing resolution, which passed the chamber last week, includes the same provision.

In case you missed it:

Today, E2 reported on a Fox News editor’s e-mail asking staff to include mention of critics of climate science in their report (and former Vice President Al Gore’s response). We detailed a new Energy Department study on rare-earth minerals, which are essential elements of a slew of key energy technologies. And we teed up the prospects for passage this year of a bill to compensate the families of the 11 men who died during the Deepwater Horizon explosion (the chances aren’t good).

As the Senate passed the tax package, we told you about an effort in the House to make changes to key energy-related provisions in the bill. And we gave you the latest on the efforts by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to get a vote on his bill to delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, we reported on some criticism by Sen. David Vitter (D-La.) of a trip by Interior Department staffers to Papua New Guinea.

Around the Web:

Cutting emissions vital to polar bears’ survival

“Significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades could give polar bears a chance of surviving over the long term by preserving the Arctic sea ice on which they depend, according to a new study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature,” The Washington Post reports.

Chemical Safety Board hits oil industry on disaster prevention

“The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said on Wednesday that the lack of a focus on preventing major accidents is emerging as a key issue for the oil industry,” Dow Jones reports.

“The finding came in the board's investigation of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig earlier this year, which touched off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, and came five years after an accident at BP Plc's Texas City oil refinery. In the Texas City disaster, a tower was overfilled with flammable liquid, leading to the formation of a vapor cloud that triggered a massive explosion, killing 11 workers.”

EPA says saccharin is OK

“Saccharin, an artificial sweetener dubbed a potential cancer-causing agent in the 1980s, has now been officially declared safe,” USA Today reports.

“Without any fanfare, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it was dropping the crystalline powder — widely used in diet soft drinks, chewing gum, juice and toothpaste — from its list of hazardous substances.”