By Rich Heidorn Jr.
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to enter conference committee negotiations on energy legislation after Republicans agreed to drop provisions in a House bill that President Obama has promised to veto.
“I will reiterate my personal commitment to a final bill that can pass both chambers and be signed into law by the president,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said on the Senate floor July 12 before the upper chamber voted 84-3 to name conferees.
“It can’t be the House product necessarily, or the Senate product necessarily,” she added. “It has to be something that both chambers can agree on and that the president can sign into law.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, said the Republicans’ promise was enough to keep Democrats working toward a compromise.
“What we were most concerned about was pursuing an agenda that definitely couldn’t get past the White House, and veto threats, and certainly wanted to look constructively at how we got a package on some issues that we knew if we couldn’t get resolved, it wouldn’t get resolved,” Cantwell told reporters.
The Senate passed its bipartisan Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S.2012) in April, with support of all but a handful of Republicans. It authorizes increased spending on energy research, improves cybersecurity protections and encourages more efficient buildings and vehicles. It also adds taxpayer protections to the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program and streamlines federal approvals of electric transmission, pipeline, hydropower and LNG facilities.
The House’s Republican-drafted North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act (H.R.8), by contrast, cleared in December with support from only three Democrats.
Obama, who has expressed support for most provisions in the Senate bill, singled out several House proposals as nonstarters, including ones that would limit funding for the National Science Foundation and the federal government’s influence over local building codes. The administration also objected to measures that would halt implementation of an efficiency rule for gas furnaces and reverse existing law phasing out fossil fuels from federal buildings. (See Energy Bill Faces Tight Calendar, Partisan Divide in House.)
House Republicans have balked at the Senate bill’s permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Senate acted before Congress began a seven-week recess, during which staffers are expected to work toward a bill both houses can approve. If enacted, it would be the first major energy law in almost a decade.
In addition to Murkowski and Cantwell, the Senate conferees are Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The House has named 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats to the committee.
Interest Groups React
Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan said that while reaching agreement will be difficult, “focusing first on those pieces — like the energy efficiency provisions that have strong bipartisan support and broad public appeal — will help the conferees to move together.”
The League of Conservation Voters praised Murkowski and Cantwell for reaching a compromise to ensure negotiations continue. “However, we are concerned that many controversial items still remain in the scope of the energy bill conference and that the measures being debated will not amount to the true overhaul our energy sector needs,” Vice President of Government Affairs Sara Chieffo said in a statement.
The American Petroleum Institute praised the Senate’s action, saying its bill would ensure “that American natural gas has a dominant place on the world market.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists said the conferees could produce a bill that is a “modest step in the right direction on issues such as energy efficiency and clean energy infrastructure.”
“Both parties have a lot invested and aren’t interested in wasting their time,” Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for UCS’s Climate and Energy Program, said in a statement.
“Although much better than the partisan House bill, the bipartisan Senate bill contains a worrisome provision categorizing the burning of biomass for electricity as carbon-neutral. This is not only scientifically inaccurate but could also undercut EPA’s current efforts to determine the proper role for biomass in the Clean Power Plan and potentially lead to increased carbon pollution.”