Climate

What’s Really Inside The Senate’s New Bill To ‘Modernize’ The Energy System

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On Thursday afternoon, the Senate’s energy committee sent the first wide-ranging energy bill in over six years to the senate floor, but not before weighing it down with an array of provisions that ensure opposition from many environmentalist groups. The bill, as well as any amendments Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell consents to, could receive votes after the August summer recess.

The main piece of legislation, the “Energy Policy and Modernization Act of 2015,” does not directly address wind and solar energy, sources that comprise the epitome of “modern” energy — over half of new generating capacity came from wind and solar in the first half of 2015. The bill instead focuses on fossil fuels and infrastructure: natural gas pipeline permitting, authorizing the main federal conservation fund, job training, updating the grid, as well as a push on energy efficiency. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed it with an 18-4 vote and many statements of good faith from Democrats and Republicans. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Mike Lee (R-UT), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were the four to vote against it.

With the congressional August recess looming after next week, and an incredibly busy legislative fall greeting Congress when it returns, this bill is also expected to be on the docket — though with less of a profile than the Iran nuclear deal, Planned Parenthood funding, the anticipated final carbon rule from the EPA, and other fights on the budget. With so much yet to be decided, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Republican Congress’ fight with President Obama could lead to another government shutdown.

Still, the energy bill served as a proxy for many of the senators on the committee to engage in some old-fashioned bipartisan legislating. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the committee, called the successful effort to pass a bipartisan bill on to the full Senate an “impressive journey,” where “no one’s getting everything they want, for sure.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), said it was “the first step in the long but important journey” to work on significant energy legislation. Cantwell’s approach has been to deal with “essential” updates to national energy policy to prevent things like blackouts and update the grid to be able to handle more renewable energy sources, while addressing more controversial subjects later.

The drive to make this a bipartisan energy infrastructure bill meant that many amendments from both sides of the aisle were voted down or refused. The committee refused to include amendments about the most notorious proposed energy infrastructure project in the country, the Keystone XL pipeline. A large majority of the committee voted down an amendment offered by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) that would eliminate Congress’ role in choosing how to appropriate the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, even an amendment offered by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) addressing coal supply emergencies failed, despite praise from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a coal advocate who joked about Franken’s acknowledgment of the need for coal.

Green groups largely oppose the bill because it focuses so much on increased fossil fuel production and mining permits, while interfering with federal energy efficiency programs, and a mandate to phase out fossil fuels in federal buildings, according to a letter they sent the committee earlier this week.

“The committee seemed to forget that a forward looking energy policy must include a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy,” said Friends of the Earth’s Kate DeAngelis in a statement. “The bill, instead, remains focused on rewarding the fossil fuel industry for their campaign contributions.”

Energy Efficiency

The package contains the Portman-Shaheen energy efficiency bill, which famously died last year after being weighed down with many unrelated amendments. Murkowski congratulated Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) again, joking “perhaps third time’s the charm.” The energy efficiency advocacy group Alliance to Save Energy said in a statement that it “unequivocally supports and applauds” the inclusion of Portman-Shaheen in the package, but it “vehemently objects to” another provision “that unduly hampers energy efficiency gains by delaying the establishment of new efficiency standards for furnaces.” It urged the Senate to adopt the compromise worked out in a House version of the bill.

The committee adopted an amendment that delays the implementation of efficiency standards for commercial refrigeration for a short time in order to allow manufacturers to use climate-friendly refrigerants. A Franken amendment to implement a slowly-rising energy efficiency resource standard was rejected by the full committee on Tuesday.

Fossil Fuel Exports

The panel also voted 12-10 to approve a separate bill that would lift the ban on exporting crude oil, in place since the 1970s. That bill would also speed up liquefied natural gas exports and increase offshore drilling.

The close vote to lift the crude oil export ban also came with additional provisions to expand oil and gas drilling efforts in the Atlantic and the Arctic. Jacqueline Savitz, the U.S. vice president of Oceana, the world’s largest international oceans advocacy group, said it was a “massive give-away to Big Oil and a slap in the face to coastal communities that have vocally opposed offshore drilling.”

Democrats opposed the bill, but Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Sen. signaled they may be open to supporting it if Republicans supported extending renewable energy tax credits set to expire. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’s amendment to require an economic study on what exporting natural gas passed.

On Thursday, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) told Murkowski that one of the underlying bills the committee considered could very well be called the “No Fossil Fuel Left Behind Act,” raising concerns that it was “totally unbalanced.” The committee voted down on party lines his amendment to require an environmental review before the approval of a natural gas export terminal. He voted for the broader energy package, however.

No Solar Or Climate

Sanders used his position on the committee to introduce amendments that continued his push on solar energy development and climate action. The first, the Low Income Solar Act, would provide job training for the solar workforce and support organizations working on expanding low-income resident access to solar energy. It failed 9-13, with only Sen. Manchin crossing party lines to vote with the Republican majority.

The second was a Sense of Congress that climate change is real, caused by human activity, there isn’t much time to reverse it, and the consequences of inaction are dire.

“I think, for those who are planning to vote against the amendment, speak to your kids, think about your grandchildren,” Sanders told his colleagues Wednesday. “Because I think that history will record you on the very, very, very wrong side of this enormous issue.”

It was voted down with the same result as Sanders’ solar amendment.

The package also included a provision promoting clean vehicle technology R&D investment. A bill promoting renewable energy development on public lands was offered and withdrawn, though with the promise that it would be included on the senate floor.

The bill’s ultimate fate, as is the case with anything in congress, lies with what other controversial amendments get added to it on the senate floor.