WASHINGTON, August 8, 2017 -While efforts to reform health care have fizzled and infrastructure and tax reform still seem like a heavy lift for this fall, there’s one piece of legislation that could actually give both parties a much needed legislative victory.
Plus, passing comprehensive energy legislation this year is “hugely important” to provide legislative authority and avoid the uncertainties and legal wrangling created when a new administration reverses a previous administration’s actions. That’s according to energy policy expert Frank Maisano, a partner with Bracewell & Giuliani’s Policy Resolution Group. He tells Agri-Pulse that “legislation is always preferable to regulations and administrative actions.”
As an example, Maisano points to the uncertainties surrounding the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to limit power plant carbon emissions for the first time. The plan has been stayed by the courts and EPA is behind schedule on writing replacement carbon emissions rules. Maisano explains that “the reason you have administrative action is because the legislation has not been moved forward.”
The good news, Maisano says, is that the Murkowski/Cantwell energy bill now under consideration in the Senate would resolve many issues such as with “energy efficiency programs and many of the other types of legislative programs that it reboots in terms of tax credits that it would reauthorize like the 45J tax credit for nuclear power which is very important right now.”
Maisano adds that the energy bill is also important because “you’re showing that Democrats and Republicans can work together for a common cause, whether it’s energy efficiency, whether it’s renewing programs that have worked well, whether it’s a discussion about Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste.”
A Senate Energy Committee staffer agrees, telling us that “Sens. Murkowski and Cantwell’s collaborative efforts and approach used to build this broad energy legislation is a great example of bipartisanship. Their work should not only be commended, but should also serve as an example of how challenging issues can be addressed through the regular order process.”
Resolving a host of key issues left dangling since the last major energy bill was enacted in 2007, Maisano says, is vital because this overdue update would tell the Trump administration and its implementing agencies like the Department of Energy “what Congress wants done in terms of specific energy efficiency regulations or timing on those energy efficiency regulations or streamlining the process for those regulations.”
The bill’s prospects looked bright in July when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put the legislation directly on the Senate Calendar for expedited floor consideration. He was bypassing the normal committee process because last year’s Murkowski/Cantwell energy bill was thoroughly debated and came close to passing. The Senate had passed the bill in a decisive 85-12 vote but then failed to reach agreement on a final bill in conference with the House.
This year, despite McConnell’s plans, the Senate backlogged with other pressing issues and recessed before taking up the energy bill. This latest delay nixes any consideration of the legislation until September when Congress returns from its August recess.
Co-sponsored again this year by Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the bipartisan Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 (S. 1460) addresses a wide range of long-postponed bipartisan priorities such as providing energy efficiency incentives, modernizing the electric grid, easing the West’s water shortages, and addressing cybersecurity threats. It also settles several very contentious issues in hard-fought compromises considered necessary for the bill to pass.
On the one hand, the proposed bill pleases most Democrats and environmental interests because it would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that uses federal offshore drilling revenues to pay for land acquisition and conservation and “provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.” Republicans, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, have called instead for scaling back the program and switching more control to the states.
The most controversial compromises to acknowledge the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” priorities are the bill’s provisions to streamline federal permitting for new natural gas pipelines and LNG export terminals.
Despite the bill’s many provisions providing new authorization and funding for energy efficiency, the LWCF, renewable energy, and energy research, a group of environmental organizations including Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org strongly opposed the compromise bill. In a July letter to the Senate, the groups charge that “no energy legislation is better than bad energy legislation that serves to increase our dependence on dirty fossil fuel production instead of advancing energy efficiency to reduce the amount of energy we utilize and building on successful policies to expand clean energy sources such as solar and wind.”
Focusing on the bill’s expedited permitting for natural gas pipelines, the group’s letter concludes that “encouraging investment in fossil fuel infrastructure makes it more difficult to transition away from the dirty fossil fuels that are causing the climate catastrophe, rather than moving us towards a more sustainable energy future.”
One Senate staffer working on the energy bill brushes off such criticism, pointing out that “both sides have some stuff in there they like, both sides have some stuff in there that they don’t like, but that’s how you make deals . . . We’re very comfortable with the compromise that we’ve struck.”
The staffer, a Democrat, adds that “the bipartisan approach that Senators Murkowski and Cantwell have committed to and are working in lockstep on is a welcome change of pace from the toxic atmosphere on many of the other issues that the country faces . . . I think that eventually this president and this Republican Congress are going to want to pass substantive legislation and I think that this energy bill is well positioned to fill that void.”
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Public Relations Director Stephen Bell notes that NRECA actively supported the Senate energy bill last year and is “glad to see Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell introduce their bill to pick up where they left off.”
Promising that NRECA will continue to work with Congress to update U.S. energy policy, Bell concludes that the Senate bill “provides important reforms to infrastructure permitting programs and will also make improvements in our nation’s hydropower licensing regulations, and promote additional research into energy storage technologies.”
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