Senate energy bill: The art of the compromise

Farm Forum

A lot of folks complain that nothing gets done in Washington these days. At the same time, there are those who complain that lawmakers actually voted for something that did not deliver 100 percent of what their party or respective interest groups wanted.

If you are in that latter group, you might not be happy with the energy bill that recently passed the Senate by 85-12. It wasn’t ideologically pure for either party and several interests groups are still bitter. But it did demonstrate how two women, working to keep their eyes on the possible, were able to get something done in the U.S. Senate during a presidential election year.

Passage of the first comprehensive energy bill since 2007 produced a long-awaited victory for Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The measure was supported by 42 Republicans and 43 Democrats.

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, Sen. Murkowski highlighted the diversity of organizations from around the country who 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 today. “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 New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich on the Senate floor this 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,” said Cantwell in a release prior to today’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 nays.

Another amendment by Sen. Tom Udall, D- NM., which would have required the Secretary of the Treasury to develop Clean Energy Victory Bonds, was rejected when it 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.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council also 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.”

Murkowski’s next big challenge will be to get some version of this bill to the president’s desk for a signature. The measure 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.

However, Murkowski said the biggest hurdle 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.

Editor’s note: Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this report.