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Senate Passes Energy Policy Bill That Was Stalled by Flint

The Senate passed, 85-12, an energy policy modernization bill on Wednesday that was stalled for months by Democrats’ efforts to use the measure as leverage for a package of federal spending to address the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. The bill (S 2012) is the first broad energy policy bill passed by the Senate since 2007. It provides for modest policy changes that could win bipartisan support, including streamlining the permitting for liquefied natural gas exports, mandating improvements to the electric grid’s reliability and security, raising energy efficiency standards for commercial and federal buildings, and permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
It now faces reconciliation with a more ideological House-passed energy bill (HR 8), and a short calendar for getting it done. The White House threatened to veto the House bill over measures that it said would derail the Obama administration’s agenda to reduce climate-warming carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The Senate measure was sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the committee’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington. Democrats relented on their demands for Flint aid last week, allowing the bill to move to the floor. The energy legislation first hit the Senate floor with bipartisan support in mid-January, but stalled when Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters demanded it include an amendment to address the crisis in Flint. A deal that would allow the energy bill to advance as well as a separate bill for Flint could was unable to get unanimous consent, and Democrats relented when they were assured that there would be another vehicle to address Flint. The Senate on Tuesday added 31 noncontroversial amendments on a voice vote, and two others that needed a 60-vote threshold. The total amendment count for the bill was more than 60. Murkowski and Cantwell emphasized throughout the process that they wanted to preserve the bill’s bipartisan backing and avert a veto threat by avoiding partisan provisions. The effort succeeded; the measure passed by a wide margin and the Obama administration stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

‘Proud of the Process’

  “As substantive as this bill is, as much good policy reform that is reflected in it, I am equally proud of the process that we used to get here,” Murkowski said after the vote. “To have 80 members of the Senate have some level of ownership in the sense of input, amendments and process that they are included is a good path to be on here in the Senate.” She added, “I think the vote you see reflected here this morning is indicative of the need to update and modernize our energy policies.” Cantwell earlier noted the compromises that advanced the bill. “The bill represents a lot of discussion,” she said on Tuesday. “It’s not the perfect bill that the chairwoman would have written, nor the exact bill I would have written, but it’s is a compromise on the modernization of energy that this country desperately needs – the steps we need to take to keep moving forward on a safer, more secure, cleaner energy force and a work force to go with delivering it.” The compromise version, however, has some advocates dissatisfied. The Natural Resources Defense Council led a group of nine environmental groups in opposing the bill. In a letter to lawmakers, the group said the bill “contains counter-productive provisions” like the streamlined permitting process and changes to the definition of biomass energy that would slow the push for cleaner energy. How Flint Became the New 9th Ward
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“While S 2012 includes provisions that would facilitate modest, but important, progress towards cleaner sources of energy, it also contains counter-productive provisions that will slow that transition,” the letter said. “These provisions weaken protections for our land, air, water and public health. If anything, the bill has become more problematic as it has moved through the legislative process.” Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage Action for America reissued its key vote alert against the energy bill. First issued in January, the group complained that the bill expands the federal government’s role in choosing energy “winners and losers.” “True energy reform would reduce government barriers by eliminating mandates, subsidies, regulations, and other programs that hinder the development and use of our natural resources, allowing consumers and the market to determine our country’s energy future,” the group said in the alert. “This legislation falls far short of that goal; in fact, it goes the opposite direction by continuing and expanding the ‘government knows best’ model that has failed our country for decades.”

Conference Calendar

  Murkowski said that the Senate would recommend entering into a formal conference with the House to produce a final bill. The last time Congress conferenced on an energy policy bill was in 2005 when the House led the process. Murkowski said that the Senate would lead this time around. “That is what is working in this process: legislating and regular order, that is what is ruling the day,” Cantwell said. “The Senate should do more of it.” The biggest challenge facing the conference, Murkowski said, is the legislative calendar. “One of the concerns that we have is time, the calendar and the fact that  in order to have a conference, the House and the Senate need to be in town at the same time,” she said. “You look at the calendar going forward, and we’ve got some work to do . . .  We are going to needing to move as quickly as we can.” The House bill, introduced by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., passed late last year, mainly along party lines. Upton acknowledged earlier this year that the House version turned into a more partisan affair than he initially anticipated. He said he was willing to work with the Senate to reconcile differences between the two versions and produce a bill that President Barack Obama could sign into law. “With today’s milestone, we are one step closer to embracing policies that say yes to energy,” Upton said on Wednesday. “We’ve made significant progress toward modernizing and protecting our energy infrastructure, promoting innovation and energy efficiency while strengthening U.S. energy security and jobs. But more work needs to be done. I look forward to conferencing with our counterparts in the Senate.”

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