In The Biggest Energy Bill The Senate Has Debated In 8 Years, They Forgot Coal

CREDIT: (AP Photo/David Goldman)

For the past few years Congress has infamously hit gridlock on budgets, immigration, health care, and climate change. But in the first major update to the nation’s energy policy in almost eight years, key senators are standing on some unusual common ground by championing natural gas, infrastructure improvements, and energy efficiency.

Counting words inside a legislative bill may not be an exact science, yet much can be gauged from the number of times the energy bill being debated on the senate floor mentions gas, oil, coal, and renewables through its 400-plus pages.

The first thing to notice is that natural gas has a strong presence in the bill. Gas is cited more than oil, renewable energy, coal, and nuclear power. Even the word “environment” and the phrase “energy efficiency” — which receive significant attention in this act — have fewer mentions than gas. The second thing to notice is that out of all energy sources, coal seems to be the one lagging behind in both presence and influence, with only a few more mentions than nuclear energy.

And yet the bill is relatively light on measures affecting most energy industries or broad attacks on environmental protections. That’s no coincidence. Co-sponsors Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) wanted the Energy Policy Modernization Act to avoid controversial topics that would lessen its chances of passing. “I want to change energy policy and you can’t do that without the legislation becoming law,” Murkowski said to the Alaska Dispatch News.

The effort to turn this bill into law has meant not just avoiding controversial topics but also concentrating on common ground like infrastructure improvement, cyber security, and energy efficiency. The bill presses for advanced grid technology and measures to allow more clean energy into the grid. It reauthorizes weatherization programs to improve residential energy efficiency and codifies lower energy use in federal buildings.

Still, it’s inevitable that what Murkowski described as “very inclusive by design” bill contains provisions that affect key energy industries, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions the country will generate in the coming years. After all, the energy industry is the third-largest industry in the United States. Moreover, electricity production generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — approximately 67 percent of electricity comes from burning coal and natural gas.

So stakes are high for many large companies whenever an energy bill reaches the Senate floor, and this time is no different. The energy bill thus has various provisions designed to help fossil fuel industries as well as a growing lost list of amendments benefiting different regions and industries — almost 200 have been filed to date. One of these amendments, for instance, would allow the sale of oil reserves when prices go up. There are also the sections that would require federal agencies to develop expedited review processes for new mining permits, and others streamlining the process for natural gas export terminals — each steps that would help lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

The oil industry, still happy from the recent move to lift the crude oil export ban, backs the energy bill. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY), American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the API “strongly encourages” the senate to approve the act.

But some experts said the same can’t be said about coal, an industry that is losing influence and that experts say won’t get much from the bill. This comes as energy generation in the country is increasingly fueled by natural gas, which exacerbates the economical losses the coal industry is already experiencing through recent bankruptcies and decreased production as environmental regulations become more stringent.

“I think the greatest thing the coal industry can get … is to get some acknowledgement that the industry is in sharp decline,” Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Energy Security and Climate Initiative of the Brookings Institution, told ThinkProgress. “And that at minimum there needs to be a massive relief to retrain people who are coal miners, and to provide money to local communities that are almost totally dependent on coal.”

Ebinger said there have been talks that senators might introduce such an amendment. Retraining for displaced coal workers is nothing new however, as legislators have attempted comparable bills in the past and most recently President Obama approved an aid package for coal-dependent communities that went ignored in Congress.

But that’s not to say that the coal industry is without advocates in this process or is totally absent from the bill. Republican senators have offered at least two amendments that would lift the coal leasing moratorium on federal lands the Obama administration announced last month. In addition, the bill continues funding for a coal technology program that some hope could result in a cleaner way to burn coal. The idea, according to the act, is “to ensure the continued use of the abundant, domestic coal resources of the United States.”

Marc Boom, associate director of government affairs for the National Resource Defense Council, agrees in that coal doesn’t have much presence in the bill. But “coal already gets such favorable treatment under the federal government that I’m not sure what else they would have added,” he said.

Indeed, in 2013 the country spent $769 million in coal subsidies, according to a recent report by the Energy Information Administration. That’s about $100 million more than what the industry got in 2010.

As a far as renewables, the bill sidesteps the industry, too, since renewables already received key tax credit extensions in a separate bill last year. However, amendments supporting net-metering policies that promote renewable energy and the creation of so-called clean energy bonds that would finance renewable energy projects have been introduced. Whether these and other provisions will receive votes this week remains to be seen.

But while environmentalists following the bill said the act could be better, none of those reached expressed deep reservations about it. “We’ve always been concerned that this was going to be a Christmas tree for drilling proposals, or to weaken some of the measures the president’s done on climate [change],” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program for the Sierra Club. “It hasn’t played out that way.”

This suggests that the energy bill has so far been able to cater to environmentalists and big oil, an uncommon feat. Yet environmentalist say they remain vigilant for amendments trying to scale back the environmental initiatives Obama has pushed recently, like the Clean Power Plan that limits the amount of carbon allowed from the electricity sector. These “poison pills” could mount in the coming days but so far though, “it’s interesting how calm the debate has been,” said Manuel. “It’s really kind of old school Washington when people tried to get stuff done.”