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Heating Up

Senators introduce bipartisan 
energy bill

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The leading senators overseeing energy policy introduced a new version of their broad energy reform bill last week.

The legislation from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has few changes from a bill the upper chamber passed last year. And that’s a problem for progressive groups who say the bill still does too much for fossil fuels and not enough for renewables and climate change.

The bill, dubbed the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017, has a wide variety of provisions, centered on energy efficiency, infrastructure and cybersecurity.

“Our energy infrastructure is under attack and we need the tools to fix it right now,” Cantwell said in a press release. “Our bipartisan legislation will not only help modernize our energy infrastructure, but secure it from extreme weather, climate change, and serious cyber threats. I am looking forward to continuing to refine this legislation through robust debate and then sending it to the President’s desk.”

“It has now been a full decade since Congress has passed legislation to modernize and reform our nation’s energy and resource policies,” Murkowski said. “We came very close to achieving that goal last year, and have continued to work with our congressional colleagues and a wide range of stakeholders to write another strong bill. This stands not only as an opening for bipartisan accomplishment, but more importantly, as a significant opportunity to boost our economic growth, improve our infrastructure, enhance our security, and bolster our global competitiveness—results that we all support and should be working toward.”

Focused on a range of energy and natural resources opportunities and challenges, ENRA features 11 sections reflecting the senators’ common ground on efficiency, infrastructure, supply, accountability, conservation, federal land management, sportsmen’s issues, water infrastructure, natural hazards and energy extracted from tribal lands.

The previous version of the legislation passed the Senate with 85 votes last year.

Senators then established a formal conference committee with the House to come to a final agreement on the legislation. But the negotiations got bogged down, mostly on issues regarding natural resources policies, and did not come to an agreement before the session of Congress ended at the close of the year.

Work on the earlier bill provided a starting point for Murkowski and Cantwell’s bipartisan efforts in this Congress.

Environmental groups panned the bill. Last week, more than 350 national, state and local grassroots groups sent a letter to Senate leadership opposing the bill.

“Together, these provisions are a shameful giveaway to the fossil fuel industry and directly support Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director for the Food and Water Fund, said.

“Sen. Cantwell likes to portray herself as pro-environment. It’s hard to imagine how she could believe this while also cosponsoring a ‘fossil fuels forever’ bill that would move us to the precipice of climate catastrophe.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was an early and vocal critic of the bill.

“Our job is to move away from fossil fuels toward sustainable energy and energy efficiency,” the senator said in a statement. “This bill does the opposite.”

Murkowski and Cantwell say the bill would modernize America’s energy infrastructure by finding “common ground” on energy issues. The bill would also continue funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a fund that taxes oil and natural gas earnings to preserve U.S. land and water resources.

But Sanders sees it differently: “[This bill] would make us more reliant on fracking for natural gas for decades to come by expediting the review process for natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas,” Sanders said in his statement. “It would also provide millions of taxpayer dollars to research new offshore natural gas extraction techniques.”

Last year, Sanders was the lone voice of dissent among Senate liberals to a similar bill. He voted no on the legislation in committee, but was not present to vote on the bill when it came before the full Senate. This time around, there will be no committee vote. Groups opposed to the energy bill said Democrats who opposed the closed-door way Republicans developed their health care bill should also be critical of the way this bill was advanced to the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fast-tracked the bill for consideration by the full Senate. Senate Republicans failed to pass a national health care bill last week and are pressing the energy bill forward to show their body can move quickly and approve bipartisan legislation.

In announcing his opposition to the bill, Sanders said he will offer amendments to the legislation. Those changes would have to be voted on by the Senate, slowing any quick passage of the legislation. That’s his point, and it allows progressive groups time to respond.

“Expediting the build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure takes us in exactly the wrong direction at a time when we must urgently transition to the low-carbon economy,” the coalition of those groups noted in their letter to Senate leaders. “Building LNG export terminals leads to expanded hydraulic fracturing for natural gas across this country, which requires the development of new pipelines, new compressor stations, storage facilities and new export terminals. In addition, increased production of domestic natural gas will feed the construction of new natural gas-fired power plants.

“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.

“We find it astounding that any energy bill could contain a Renewables’ subtitle but does not include provisions on solar and wind energy,” the groups commented. “Instead of pursuing more dirty energy Congress should pass legislation that promotes clean energy such as solar and wind. We must speed the transition to truly clean energy. Again, we urge you not to support S 1460 or any legislation that fails to guide our nation into a clean energy future.”

According to Cantwell’s office, the bill has benefits specific to the state. In Washington state alone, 96 composite companies across the state produce two million pounds of production waste carbon fiber each year that is sent to a landfill. This carbon fiber has a potential market value of $50 million if it can be reused and recycled.

The bill also calls for an expansion of energy workforce development programs.

Washington has more than 116,000 workers in the energy sector, including more than 54,000 workers in the traditional energy sector and almost 62,000 in energy efficiency. Washington leads the Pacific Northwest in terms of total utility employment and that number is expected to grow by 6.1 percent by 2020. However, 17 percent of energy workers in the Pacific Northwest are expected to retire within five years. The energy industry also continually faces a skills gap, with 77 percent of energy companies finding it difficult to hire qualified employees. 

Climate activists want to see Democratic politicians take a strong stand against any policies that could increase the supply of any fossil fuels, even gas. The Senate bill is an early preview of that fight, even if environmentalists don’t rally enough opposition to defeat it. They don’t want to make the White House’s aggressive fossil fuel agenda even more powerful by implying there’s a broad coalition of support where there is none.

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