WASHINGTON, April 26, 2016 –“Don’t spoil our victory lap” was the response from one Senate staffer when asked about the prospects for reconciling the comprehensive energy bill the Senate passed overwhelmingly last week with the very different House bill passed in December.
Along with the challenge of limited legislative time remaining, the vote tallies for the two bills show a sharp contrast:
- The Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S. 2012) in a bipartisan 85-12 vote, with ayes from 42 Republicans and 43 Democrats and all 12 nays from Republicans.
- The House passed its North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015 (H.R. 8) in a largely party-line 249-174 vote that included support from only nine Democrats.
In contrast to the Senate’s bipartisan approach, the House bill became increasingly partisan as it took shape. The result, as Murkowski commented in a teleconference after the Senate bill passed last week, is that the House bill is “pretty much a Republican bill.” Murkowski explained that based on the Senate bill’s strong bipartisan support, her goal in reconciling the two bills is to “try to keep that bipartisan approach.”
Based on the unexpectedly lopsided vote in support of the Senate bill, a former Senate GOP staffer expects bipartisanship to prevail soon because “Republicans would like to put this over the finish line before they leave town for the conventions in July.” What’s more, the staffer said, “Democrats would love to watch Republicans blow up their own success” if House hardliners block a reconciled bill in conference or on the House floor.
One Senate Democratic staff member says he expects Republicans to end up agreeing to reasonable concessions because “they’re trying to show that they can govern, that they can move bills through to completion.”
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, R-Mich., welcomed “the bipartisan Senate vote” that he said puts Congress “one step closer to embracing policies that say ‘yes’ to energy.” But he called for a final reconciled bill that recognizes “our newfound energy abundance” and incorporates his House’s bill’s provisions to modernize U.S. energy laws and “keep energy prices affordable for all Americans” by continuing to advance the use of fossil fuels.
Among supporters of the House’s more fossil-fuel-focused approach to energy, the conservative Heritage Foundation warns that the Senate bill would continue “government meddling in the energy economy” and “waste taxpayer resources, override consumer preference, direct money toward politically preferred technologies, and appease special interests.”
One specific concern with the Senate bill is that it won votes from Democrats because it would make the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanent for the first time. This major federal land-acquisition program supports national parks and forests and other conservation, wildlife refuge, and public recreational areas. It is funded from federal offshore oil drilling lease payments.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, opposes the Senate bill’s permanent LWCF funding. “Adding that as a mandatory program is one of the worst things you could do financially . . . just buying more land with it, that’s just plain dumb,” he told Agri-Pulse.
Making LWCF funding permanent brought an equally sharp response from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Concerned that the Senate vote ignores Western states where federal land acquisition has harmful impacts, NCBA President Tracy Brunner said “We realize that there may be certain times that land acquisition is necessary. But in the face of an $18 billion federal maintenance backlog, new federal land acquisitions without adequate funding for ongoing care and maintenance is just irresponsible.”
The Sierra Club has its own concerns with the Senate Bill. Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce said that Murkowski and Cantwell successfully avoided “many of the extreme anti-environmental ideological riders we have come to expect from the GOP majority and litter the House bill passed last year.” But she concluded that despite its good points, the Senate bill still “favors the dirty and dangerous fossil fuels of the past at a time when we need to move full speed ahead towards an economy powered by clean, renewable energy.”
Along with other environmental groups, the Sierra Club welcomes a broad mix of Senate provisions designed to boost energy efficiency in buildings, upgrade the electric grid including support for developing utility-scale battery storage, encourage hydropower and geothermal energy, and make the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent.
On balance, however, the Sierra Club opposed the Senate bill due to its “expedited approvals of gas exports; increased investments in dirty methane hydrates and dangerous nuclear energy; the repeal of a policy that requires federal buildings be fossil fuel free by 2030; and a controversial biomass amendment which undermines both the president’s Clean Power Plan and U.S. climate progress.”
Union of Concerned Scientists Government Affairs Director Rob Cowin concludes that while the Senate bill doesn’t do enough to support renewable energy and address climate change, it is far better than the House bill. He says the goal should be “making sure that the Senate bill is not weakened in conference committee” with the House.
While acknowledging differences in the two bills, Murkowski says she’s confident that the House and Senate “can work through issues.” She says the major challenge will be finding time on the House and Senate floor to pass a reconciled bill in order to have it signed it into law “before the end of this Congress.”
In listing the Senate bill’s accomplishments, Murkowski highlights measures to support liquefied natural gas exports and natural gas pipelines, create a new oil and gas permitting program, improve mineral security, promote hydropower, enhance cyber security, fund new energy technology research including coal research, and “bring us just one step closer to becoming a global energy superpower.” She said the overall goal is to “help America produce more energy” while saving money and energy through new energy efficiency programs “without raising taxes, without imposing new mandates, and without adding to the federal deficit.”
In contrast, Cantwell promises that the Senate bill’s provisions – if they survive reconciliation with the House bill – “will modernize the electric grid, invest in renewable energy, and train a new generation of energy workers.” While Murkowski highlights the Senate bill’s support for traditional energy, Cantwell instead focuses on the Senate bill’s provisions for supporting the transition to cost-saving alternatives including wind and solar power, and “preparing the next generation of workers for jobs in clean energy.”
Murkowski’s and Cantwell’s different lists of benefits explain why the Senate bill passed: unlike the House bill, it offers enough for both traditional and renewable energy so that both sides can claim victory.
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