Senate Passes Legislation Tailored to a Modern Energy Landscape
Source: New York Times
The Senate on Wednesday passed the first broad energy bill since the George W. Bush administration, a bipartisan measure to better align the nation’s oil, gas and electricity systems with the changing ways that power is produced in the United States.
The bill, approved 85 to 12, united Republicans and Democrats around a traditionally divisive issue — energy policy — largely by avoiding the hot-button topics of climate change and oil and gas exploration that have thwarted other measures.
Its authors, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, the panel’s ranking Democrat, purposely stepped away from any sweeping efforts to solve or fundamentally change the nation’s core energy challenges.
Still, the measure, known as the Energy Policy Modernization Act, would respond to the rapidly transforming energy landscape. It includes provisions to promote renewable energy, improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and to cut some planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution.
It would also speed the export of domestically produced natural gas.
House and Senate negotiators will now try to forge a compromise between the Senate bill and a similar measure that passed the House last year.
Passage would represent the first time since 2007 that a significant energy bill reached the White House for the president’s signature.
“What we’ll be moving now is what was achievable in the Senate,” Ms. Murkowski said in an interview. “Most people thought we couldn’t achieve anything, but we have demonstrated that we can legislate — and we can even legislate, oh my gosh, in an election year.”
Since passage of the last major energy law, the United States has gone from fearing oil and gas shortages to becoming the world’s leading producer of both fuels. The use of wind and solar power is accelerating as those sources become cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the country. And President Obama’s environmental regulations are reshaping power systems as electric utilities close coal-fired power plants and replace them with alternative sources.
But the nation’s energy infrastructure has not kept pace with those changes.
The bill would promote renewable energy by requiring operators of electricity lines, transformers, and other elements of the electrical grid to upgrade the system, with a focus on large-scale storage systems for electricity to better accommodate the expanding production of wind and solar power. The bill would create and strengthen several programs devoted to improving energy efficiency in buildings.
It would also deliver a long-sought victory to conservationists by permanently authorizing the national Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program for protecting and maintaining national parks and wilderness sites.
It would give a victory to fossil fuel producers by requiring the Energy Department to accelerate approval of permits to build coastal terminals for shipping American natural gas abroad.
And it includes provisions to address the threat of cyberattacks on the nation’s electrical grid.
“There’s so much change going on in the energy sector now, we need to have an energy bill every year,” Ms. Cantwell said. “The speed of the transition in energy now is like telecom in the ’90s.”
The bill has drawn support from a wide range of business and environmental groups, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Alliance to Save Energy and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
But some environmental groups offered only grudging responses to the measure.
“This bill is the V.H.S. tape of climate policy: tolerable in the ’80s or ’90s, but not in tune with the scientific realities of 2016,” said Jason Kowalski, the policy director for 350.org, an environmental advocacy group that led protests against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the United States.
“We need Congress to get with the times and stop writing bills that prop up the fossil fuel industry that’s wrecking our climate,” he added.
Ms. Murkowski acknowledged that almost no one is completely happy with the measure.
“To have a bill that everybody likes is not only unusual, it’s just not going to happen,” she said.
The measure came to the Senate floor in January, but it stalled for three months after Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, sought an amendment to provide $600 million to aid the victims of lead poisoning in Flint. Mich., and deal with the ongoing water crisis there. Republicans opposed her.
Last week, Ms. Stabenow and a handful of other senators relented and lifted their blockade of the energy bill.
Ms. Stabenow said that she would continue to push for a vote on the Flint aid.
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