Adults in Congress: Cantwell, Murkowski pass bipartisan energy legislation

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Two of the U.S. Senate's prominent women, who disagree on a lot, combined Wednesday to pass a sweeping bipartisan energy plan by an 85-12 vote at a time when Capitol Hill seems paralyzed.

The unlikely combo are Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the panel's ranking Democratic member.

"We formed a legislative relationship the country needed to move forward," said Cantwell.

The two "gentle ladies" have had some not-so-gentle faceoffs.

Murkowski advocates oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Cantwell wants to keep Big Oil out of the refuge. 

Cantwell was a prime advocate of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that cataloged devastating potential impacts should a huge mine be located cheek-by-jowl with two Bristol Bay salmon streams.  Murkowski argued that the EPA was jumping the gun before the mine plan was even submitted.

"At the beginning of last year, not only did we have these previous issues in which we saw the world differently, but we were going head-to-toe on the Keystone XL pipeline," said Cantwell.

Murkowski and Cantwell opted to set aside their disagreements, not try to agree on sweeping climate change legislation, and work to modernize and promote efficiency in how Americans use energy.

The result, called the Energy Policy Modernization Act, focuses on promoting renewable energy, improving energy efficiency in buildings, upgrading the electrical grid and setting in place key land conservation measures.

In specific, the legislation would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Act, a 51-year-old program in which some federal oil and gas revenues to protecting wild places and historic sites.

The legislation does speed up permitting of liquified natural gas exports.  It also defines burning of wood and forest biomass as carbon-neutral.

The pro-development Murkowski won a provision that broadens the right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline through Alaska's Denali National Park. A big chunk of Lake Clark National Park would be named for Alaska's late "bush pilot governor" Jay Hammond, whose widow still lives on the lake.

But ... permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is a big deal.  So is the reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

The country "owes it to future generations to preserve and protect our outdoor spaces," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the LWCF is "the greatest look to do just that."

Alas, the bipartisan Senate bill now goes to a politically polarized House, which last year passed a stridently anti-environmental energy bill.

Such right-wing Republicans as Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, are bent on eliminating or eviscerating the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

A limited, constructive energy bill might, however, provide a life raft for foundering House Speaker Paul Ryan.

A Politico article entitled "Paul Ryan's House of woes," published Wednesday, discussed the GOP leadership's inability to get anything done, six months after Ryan promised a new, agenda-setting regime.

As Murkowski put it, "We have our work cut out for us."

Or as Cantwell said of her Alaska colleague, with whom she has so often disagreed, "She's a legislator."