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Dragging an Energy Bill From the Ashes

For their bipartisan bill, Murkowski and Cantwell are willing to try, try again

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell, here in 2016, are still hoping their bipartisan bill will get somewhere this session. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell, here in 2016, are still hoping their bipartisan bill will get somewhere this session. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid a forest of judicial appointments and other Trump administration confirmation votes, lawmakers pushing a bipartisan energy and natural resources bill in the Senate are still taking whacks in hope of moving legislation — or parts of it — before the end of this Congress.

The bill would represent the first major energy policy update in a decade, with provisions to bolster cybersecurity, speed up permits for energy infrastructure and promote energy efficiency. It could represent a rare opportunity for energy-state lawmakers to bring home some policy victories ahead of the midterm election.

But a shrinking Senate calendar, difficulty of reaching agreement with members of the House and the distraction of that coming election make the bill’s passage challenging.

“It’s clear there is a need and an imperative to advance some of this stuff,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “You mention the cyber, and gosh we got to be doing more, and we’ve teed it all up sitting there in that bill.”

The last major energy policy rewrite was in 2007, when the main concern was reducing the country’s reliance on foreign oil products and lowering consumer costs. An influx of natural gas from the fracking boom and the falling price of renewable technology has upended that scarcity mindset and replaced it with what the Trump administration has come to call an “energy dominance” mindset.

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“I may be skewed because I’m from Louisiana and I’m so aware of energy’s importance, if you want to take it from any angle: geopolitical, creating American jobs, greenhouse gas emissions, the president’s stated goal of energy dominance. I can go on,” Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said.

Last Congress, lawmakers attempted to advance similar legislation, but negotiations ran into the session’s final days, ultimately resulting in the House adjourning without taking up a final compromise bill — much to the dismay of senators who predicted another uphill battle this Congress.

Murkowski and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell reintroduced their bill in July. That bipartisan backing allowed them to skip the committee process and head straight to the Senate floor, where the measure sits patiently waiting for its time in the limelight once again.

“We still want to get any piece of that legislation passed, either collectively or individually, but that’s up to Sen. Murkowski about whether she can convince [Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to put it on the floor,” said Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate’s likely focus for the foreseeable future will be on approving as many judicial and administration nominees as possible. Cabinet departures have clogged that effort with even more confirmation battles. And with election year jitters setting in, legislative accomplishments will be hard to come by.

Murkowski recognized how difficult it would be to secure floor time for the bill, saying McConnell has made it “very, very, very clear that he wants to get through nominations.”

She expressed frustration last month that Senate housekeeping for nominations had blocked other legislative accomplishments.

“The housekeeping side of the Senate operations has really been consuming all of our time, so we just are not getting to the legislating that people are expecting,” she said in March.

The House that snored

The other problem: House disinterest in matching a Senate effort.

“We are not getting as much enthusiasm from the House again,” Murkowski said. “The problem we are running up against is that they are interested in more of their standalone [bills], which is one way to move things.”

House Republicans balked during the last go-around at the need for energy efficiency measures — a foundational element of the Senate bill — and a clean reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expires at the end of 2018. And this time, there is no big ticket item like a reversal of the crude oil export ban to attract Republicans on the fence.

“This is about the House not understanding the needs of the nation when it comes to energy policy or lands policy,” Cantwell said of the energy bill delay. She added, “You go over to the House, and they think [energy efficiency] is some scary word that they don’t want to utter.”

Over the past year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved 24 energy bills, including a hydropower licensing bill, two pipeline permitting bills and some limited energy efficiency measures. Should the Senate move, the House could combine them into a response package.

Rep. Fred Upton, the former head of the Energy and Commerce Committee and current chairman of its Energy Subcommittee, said he is open to moving more energy legislation in the coming months, although it may not be in a comprehensive format.

“Actually, we do” want to advance energy legislation, the Michigan Republican said. “I want to move some cyber bills,” he said, referencing cybsersecurity for the electric grid. “Maybe some permitting bills, so stay tuned.”

Bits and pieces

Cybersecurity has grown in importance, especially as high-profile attacks on the grid and infrastructure bubbled into the headlines over the past two years. That could represent an area that could break apart from the larger bill.

Lawmakers, though, appear reluctant to break off some portions of the package for fear it would leave others behind. The loss of the cybersecurity measures, combined with the loss of the wildfire “fire-borrowing” fix passed in the fiscal 2018 omnibus, may cause the bill to lose the little urgency it has.

“It’s an issue, clearly, but in fairness, I don’t think we have seen a lot of it break off,” Murkowski said.

And for all the attention on divisions in the House over energy, senators themselves are not all on the same page. More liberal members, like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, fear the bill goes too far toward promoting fossil fuel use; more conservative members echo their House counterparts’ concerns on energy efficiency mandates.

But Murkowski and Cantwell and their energy bill have faltered before, giving pause to senators discounting the bill from floor action this year.

“I would not count Sen. Murkowski or Sen. Cantwell out,” said Majority Whip John Cornyn. “They are very persistent. Just when you think this thing is going to die, it comes back out of the ashes. But I have not heard anything lately.”

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