Senate Shows It Can Make a Deal on Energy—Just Not a Big One

  • Votes on amendments, bill passage are set for Tuesday
  • Measure aims to update energy infrastructure, boost efficiency

U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (right) and ranking member Senator Maria Cantwell confer during a hearing on Jan. 19, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The sharply divided U.S. Senate is poised to pass comprehensive energy legislation for the first time in nearly a decade, forging a rare bipartisan compromise -- even if the result is far less ambitious than energy packages of years past.

"It’s probably not going to be known for the sweeping changes it makes to the U.S. energy system," said Sarah Ladislaw, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But it is a big deal because it shows bipartisan energy policy is still possible. In this Congress, in energy policy, that matters."

Crafted by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, the bipartisan measure, S. 2012, seeks to upgrade the nation’s aging pipeline and power infrastructure, boost energy efficiency in federal buildings and streamline applications for exports of liquefied natural gas. 

It’s not as far-reaching as the energy packages that cleared Congress in 2005 and 2007 -- which boasted hallmark programs such as the Renewable Fuel Standard -- but its passage would be milestone for a Senate known for gridlock.

"Legislation is back and forth, give and take," Murkowski said of the compromises that she made to get a bill to the floor. Nevertheless, "I think there’s recognition that what we have built is a substantive, solid package."

The chamber last passed a broad energy measure during the George W. Bush administration, clearing a bill that aimed to increase U.S. energy independence by cutting reliance on imported oil and boosting fuel economy standards for cars. Since then, the U.S. energy landscape changed, as shale production made the country the world’s largest oil and gas producer and cut reliance on imports. And, under President Barack Obama, energy bills have stalled over partisan differences about climate change.

Murkowski and Cantwell, aiming to avoid a political morass, drafted a bill that addresses some of the nation’s most pressing energy issues while skirting those most likely to provoke partisan debate. Nowhere in the bill’s 424 pages is there a provision about ethanol or greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector, two of the most politically charged issues.

‘Parochial Interests’

Still, its advocates faced their share of hurdles. The bill first came to the floor in January, and lawmakers began working through a series of amendments. In those rosy days, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the legislation "the latest reminder of what’s possible with cooperation in this Senate."

But within weeks, the bill’s momentum stalled, waylaid by Democratic efforts to craft an aid package for Flint, Michigan and concerns over offshore drilling. Murkowski says she worked senator by senator, to free her signature legislation of "parochial interests" and objections. Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow dropped her insistence on including Flint in the energy package; Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy dropped an offshore revenue-sharing measure opposed by Florida’s Bill Nelson.

After a series of amendments votes, final passage in the Senate is planned for Tuesday afternoon.

Company Winners

More than 160 companies and business groups reported lobbying on the bill in 2015, and dozens of companies stand to benefit from provisions calling for expedited LNG permitting and hydropower licensing. If the legislation were enacted, American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Corp. and Entergy Corp. could also gain from a provision to streamline the approval process for electric transmission lines. Right now, more than 20 transmission-line projects are queued up in a federal program designed to speed permitting but, of those, most have been waiting seven years for approval, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Cheryl Wilson. 

Companies such as Siemens AG, General Electric Co. and Johnson Controls Inc. could also see new business opportunities as agencies seek contractors to meet updated federal efficiency requirements.

The next question is how the House will respond. The House-passed version, H.R. 8, triggered a veto threat from the Obama administration and garnered little Democratic support. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said the two bodies will work out the differences.

"I expect the Senate to pass it, and then we’ll go to conference," Upton said in an interview Friday. "I’m convinced that if they pass something, we can get a bill to the president that he’s gonna sign."

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