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Texas Republicans Push Energy Changes in Congress

At issue is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a stockpile of over 700 million barrels of crude oil stored in Texas and Louisiana. Congressional lawmakers are uncertain of the reserve's role in an age of abundance.

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WASHINGTON — It has been almost eight years since Congress passed major energy legislation, but congressional Republicans intend to change that — even if their reforms force a showdown with President Barack Obama.

The GOP “Architecture of Abundance” plan lays out the ideological foundation for a planned package of bills that House Republicans want to bring to a vote by the end of the year. The plan calls for a modernized energy infrastructure, a more educated workforce for the energy industry and increased efficiency. 

A key issue is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a stockpile of over 700 million barrels of crude oil stored in Texas and Louisiana, with the largest facility in Freeport. Lawmakers are uncertain of the reserve's role in an age of abundance, now that the shale oil revolution has changed the American energy landscape.

During an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Thursday, the lawmakers heard from experts on the need to repair and update the reserve's facilities.

“This aging infrastructure …. requires progressively more maintenance every year,” said Christopher Smith, assistant secretary for fossil fuels at the federal Energy Department.

Smith, who grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from West Point, is intimately familiar with the communities that rely heavily on the reserve.

“It is an aging asset,” he said.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, asked Smith whether the Energy Department would ask Congress for more money to make planned updates to reserve infrastructure. If an internal review finds a need for large-scale repairs, Smith said the agency would go to Capitol Hill with an increased budget.

The GOP plan, unveiled earlier this year, seeks to adapt the nation’s policies to an energy landscape that has been radically altered by the recent shale oil boom. Another Texas lawmaker, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, said Thursday it’s time to end the long-standing ban on exporting U.S. crude.

While Democrats support proposed energy infrastructure repairs, they take issue with provisions that would roll back energy efficiency requirements for federal buildings.

“The building code efficiency provisions in the draft is another area of great concern for me,” Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., said at the subcommittee hearing. 

The Republican proposal may also force a reevaluation of America’s ban on the export of crude oil. 

It’s been in effect since the fuel-starved 1970s, when an OPEC embargo pushed President Richard Nixon to impose price controls and other far-reaching measures, including creating the reserve. The export restriction is viewed by some in Congress as a relic that depresses the price of American energy products in foreign markets.

Barton, who has introduced a bill striking down the crude oil ban, said the existing law was meant to deal with scarcity.

“When we put the [reserve] in place we were importing lots and lots of oil and oil production in the United States was going down,” Barton said.

“Today, we’re increasing our production,” he said.

The “Abundance” plan, if fully realized, might give Republicans the leeway to circumvent the president’s veto of legislation authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline. Though the plan makes no mention of it specifically, a section dedicated to increased cross-border cooperation with North American allies suggests that Republicans have Keystone —with its northern anchor in Alberta, Canada — in mind.

Republicans, the majority in both the House and the Senate, may be gearing for a confrontation with Obama if the “Abundance”-based legislation is approved.

In a message to the Senate in February, the president said the pro-Keystone bill was a bid to “circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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