WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2016 - The energy bill debate in the Senate this week is where partisan priorities collide head-on with political reality.

Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday he expects the Senate to conclude debate and pass the bill this week with bipartisan support. Doing that requires keeping an eye on the goal posts and knocking down amendments that threaten to kill the bill. And so far, that mission has been accomplished 

But 231 amendments have been proposed so far. Cornyn, for example, has offered an amendment to require the Obama administration “to consult and learn from the regulated industry” before enforcing new safety regulations for offshore oil and gas drilling.

Along with Cornyn, who called for unleashing energy development by removing “overbearing costly regulations,” some Republicans hope to use the bill to increase fossil fuels use. And some Democrats see the bill as a potential vehicle for accelerating the current transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biofuels. But because neither party can pass a major energy bill on its own, each side is being forced to make concessions considered necessary to win enough votes to pass the bill.

There is solid bipartisan support for the bill’s provisions to increase energy efficiency, modernize the nation’s electric grid, and increase federal funding for energy research. These changes will benefit the U.S. energy system as a whole, regardless of whether the source is more fossil fuels or more renewables. These overdue changes are designed to lower energy costs, improve reliability, and make the U.S. economy more competitive internationally. So there’s agreement on the need for major new energy legislation for the first time since 2007.

But when the Senate resumed debating the bipartisan Murkowski/Cantwell Energy Policy Modernization Act, S. 2012, on Monday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., pointed to the sharp partisan divide which threatens to derail the delicately balanced legislation.

“For decades Republicans have called for producing more American energy and our Democratic colleagues have attacked those proposals that would increase the supply of energy,” Sessions said on the Senate floor. “That’s been the argument. You’ve heard it for the last 30 years.”

Sessions charged that the Obama administration has driven up energy prices and hurt the American economy and consumers by its actions such as limiting offshore drilling, blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and now placing a three-year moratorium on issuing new leases for coal mining on federal lands.

In contrast to Sessions praising coal as “a magnificent energy source,” Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Energy Committee’s ranking member, called for refocusing energy policy on new technology and new energy sources. She told senators the proof of the need for changing the nation’s energy mix is that her state of Washington enjoys the lowest electricity prices in the nation thanks to developing hydroelectric power, distributed power, and micro-grids.

Cantwell said that “even though we have the cheapest kilowatt rates, we continue to make the energy investments . . . We know it makes us more competitive.” She also pointed to current programs to make federal buildings more energy efficient. She said that these programs “demonstrate that it is cost-effective to phase out the use of fossil energy… These are not radical policies.”

On the Senate floor this week, Republicans have echoed Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who opened the debate last week by charging that the need to increase U.S. energy production has been blocked by the “notoriously slow federal permitting system” and by “top-down government-driven programs.” To free up new energy sources, a series of GOP amendments have been offered to reduce federal regulation.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said “this bill is a great example of the kind of substantive, bipartisan legislation we can produce when the Senate is working the way that it is supposed to work.

“Among many other things, this bill will streamline the process to make it easier for American companies to export liquefied natural gas.

Thune also offered an amendment to streamline the permitting process for wind development: “Removing this roadblock to allow wind generation and the jobs it creates to move forward more quickly.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, was one of many Democrats focusing on supporting renewables. 

He proposed an amendment to “reevaluate tax preferences for fossil fuels and clean energy at the same time.”  Calling for phasing out all tax breaks for fossil fuels, “as we phase them out for wind and solar power,” Schatz said, “I hope that my colleagues will join me in a big bipartisan vote for putting our clean sources of energy on an equal footing with their fossil fuel counterparts.” But as in the case of a series of floor votes on contentious issues, the Schatz amendment failed in a largely party-line vote.

Sen. Tom Udall. D-N.M., was another Democrat championing renewables. He called for creating “Clean Energy Victory Bonds” to raise the money needed “to fight global warming” without raising taxes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R-I, offered an amendment to require reporting of political spending by companies that receive $1 million or more in revenue from fossil-fuel related activities. The amendment failed by a vote of 43-52.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., failed to win Republican support for his amendment proposing the creation of a national Energy Efficiency Standard even though the energy bill itself contains a number of energy efficiency measures.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who authored the bill’s efficiency provisions along with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., explained the difference. He said unlike the Franken approach, “the bill does not have mandates. It provides incentives but not mandates.”

Despite the partisan differences, the Senate passed two amendments by voice vote, including an amendment by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lamar Alexander, R-TN., that would increase funding for the Office of Science by $2.7 billion through fiscal 2020, compared to a smaller increase in the underlying bill.

Another amendment from Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., would establish a federal education program to make certain landowners are given all of the federal conservation options available to them when choosing to put their land into a conservation easement.

A final vote on the Energy Policy Modernization Act is expected by Thursday.


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