Senate votes to launch energy bill conference with House

By Jonathan H Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 12, 2016 - Capping years of committee work and weeks of tough House/Senate negotiations on comprehensive energy legislation, the Senate voted 84 to 3 Tuesday afternoon to convene a conference to reconcile competing House and Senate bills.

Both chambers leave town Friday for the party conventions and a seven-week summer break and won't return until Sept. 6. But Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is confident that steady progress on merging the sharply different House and Senate energy bills, S. 2012 and H.R. 8, will continue during the recess. That's because Tuesday's Senate votes to go to conference and to appoint the conferees that will meet with their House counterparts allow staff members to get to work during the break to hammer out differences.

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With members gone for the summer, Murkowski explained, committee staff will be free to do “a lot of legwork that has to go on…. just kind of getting organized.”

In closing appeals before the vote, Murkowski and Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Energy Committee's ranking Democrat, stressed that their colleagues should support going to conference, now that the House has agreed not to pursue any of the provisions in that chamber's bill that have triggered White House veto threats.

Leading up to the vote, Murkowski and Cantwell issued a joint statement following lengthy negotiating sessions with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and House Natural Resources Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah. The House and Senate leaders “spent many hours hammering out an agreement on a process and ground rules that will generate a conference report they can both support,” Murkowski and Cantwell said in their statement, adding, “The House Republicans have also agreed a final conference report will not contain measures the president would veto.”

The veto-threatened “poison pill” provisions in the House bill include measures that Democrats charge would increase fossil fuel production by facilitating new pipelines and exports terminals, weaken energy efficiency standards, and undermine key environmental protection laws. The concerns shared by Democrats and some environmentalists are spelled out in a July 5 Agri-Pulse story titled, “What's preventing a House/Senate energy bill conference?”

In her remarks Tuesday, Murkowski said her committee wrote a solidly bipartisan energy bill because she and Cantwell jointly recognized that “we needed to update our country's energy laws, and in order to get a good product we were going to have to work cooperatively and collaboratively.” She said the result was “an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote - 85 senators voting in favor of the first major energy bill to pass this chamber in nearly a decade.”

Murkowski concluded by promising to deliver “a final bill that can pass both chambers and be signed into law by the president.” She said she will accomplish this “by seeking consensus over partisan division.”

Cantwell also urged her colleagues to move forward on going to conference on the energy bill. She stressed that the Senate bill includes “modernizing the electricity grid, building next generation investments in energy, smart buildings, advanced composite materials, energy storage, improving cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, and the energy workforce for tomorrow.”

Acknowledging that “there are many thorny issues still to be addressed,” in the House bill “on water and fire and a variety of other issues, Cantwell said the point is to move forward to resolve such issues. For a list of conferees, click here.

Despite the optimism from Cantwell and Murkowski, Tuesday's vote to proceed won't please everyone.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth responded immediately with a press release titled

“Senator Cantwell moves forward with dirty energy bill.” The organization's Climate and Energy Program Director Benjamin Schreiber charged that “The Senate bill that Senator Cantwell drafted undermines climate science by dictating that government scientists should treat biomass as carbon neutral. It will increase fracking by making it easier to build infrastructure for this polluting industry. And the House bill is even worse.”

There's also been positive feedback. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Interim CEO Jeffrey Connor said, “We're encouraged that House and Senate lawmakers are serious about trying to produce the first update to our energy policy in nearly a decade. America's electric cooperatives support efforts to modernize our nation's energy policy, and we urge the conference committee to develop legislation to speed electricity infrastructure development, promote electric grid reliability and keep electricity affordable for all Americans.”

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