WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016 - The Senate today gave its overwhelming approval to the first comprehensive energy bill since 2007, producing a long-awaited victory for Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The measure, which was approved 85-12, must now be reconciled with a more partisan House bill that has drawn a veto threat from the White House. That bill passed on a 240-174 vote in December with support from only nine Democrats. But Murkowski said the biggest challenge in writing a compromise version with the House will be the short amount of time Congress will be in session rather than the issues themselves. She has said she's hoping to send a final bill to President Obama before the August congressional recess.
Murkowski said the big margin for approval in today's vote was "indicative of the need to update and modernize our energy policies but also a recognition of our collaborative effort" in committee and on the Senate floor. At a news conference, she said some 80 senators had some stake in the bill through language, amendments or other input.House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the Senate vote puts Congress "one step closer to embracing policies that say 'yes' to energy.
"We've made significant progress toward modernizing and protecting our energy infrastructure, promoting innovation and energy efficiency while strengthening U.S. security and jobs," Upton said in a release. "But more work needs to be done. Our newfound energy abundance has completely flipped the script, and it's time our energy laws caught up to the 21st century."
Both Murkowski and Cantwell worked hard to keep S.2012 focused on areas of common ground, rather than contentious language that could have further delayed passage. The bill was first introduced in July 2015 and appeared to be making steady progress. But it got delayed in February over whether or not to include emergency funds to deal with the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
While some critics charge the bill doesn't go nearly far enough, Murkowski highlighted the diversity of organizations from around the country that provided support for the legislation, from the Chamber of Commerce to the United Auto Workers and a “long, long list” of others.
“Not all of these groups support all aspects,” she noted on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “But to craft a bill with 100 percent where everybody likes it is not only unusual but it's not going to happen.
“But it's a bipartisan process… collaboratively built and really an effort to modernize our energy policies that's smart, common-sense and not the government telling us what we should do but doing it for the right reasons.”
Among other things, the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 would spend about $2 billion to improve the energy grid, invest in research to add energy storage to the grid, provide incentives to cut energy use in commercial and residential properties, promote more renewable energy sources, find new ways to extract energy from water, and speed up federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia.
The bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and requires a portion of the LWCF to be used to secure rights of way and easements that open up access to existing public lands.
“As sportsmen face more and more locked gates and no trespassing signs, it's more important than ever that we keep our public lands open and welcoming to hunters and anglers,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. He cited a study by the Center for Western Priorities that estimated at least half a million acres of public lands in New Mexico alone are “landlocked” with no legal public access.
In addition, the energy bill supports drought relief in Cantwell's home state of Washington, especially the Yakima River Basin.
“Like much of the West, the basin has faced unprecedented drought, which caused billions of dollars in crop losses and related impacts in 2015,” Cantwell said in a release prior to Tuesday's debate.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., offered an amendment to set aside some of the funds in the LWCF for maintenance of existing properties and to provide additional review of prices paid for land by the federal government. But his amendment was rejected, 34 to 63.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council sharply criticized the Senate for including the LWCF authorization in the bill, noting that the Fund is the “chief acquisition tool for the federal government,” which already owns more than 660 million acres of the U.S. landmass, mostly in the West.
“It’s disappointing to see senators from Western states turn their backs on their constituents that are so heavily impacted by the large federal footprint in the West,” said Brenda Richards, Public Lands Council president. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund has never been fully funded because it is so controversial; to permanently authorize LWCF eliminates any opportunity to ever have a conversation about reform that is so badly needed.”
Another amendment, by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., which would have required the Secretary of the Treasury to develop Clean Energy Victory Bonds, failed to reach the 60-vote threshold for approval.
For environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the amended bill didn't appear to move far enough to address their concerns.
In a letter signed by 10 organizations, they suggested that, without fixing some of the most troublesome provisions, the measure could do “more harm than good.”
“At the top of our list of concerns is a provision that would essentially throw out the scientific process for determining the carbon emissions from forest biomass,” noted NRDC's Marc Boom in a blog post.
“Instead, Congress attempts to decree that all biomass is carbon-neutral, the facts be damned. The science shows that forest biomass is nowhere close to being carbon-neutral, and even counting regrowth leaves carbon in the atmosphere for decades - too long to help address the climate change problem in the necessary timeframe.”
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