Democrats Caught in Green Crossfire Over Senate Energy Bill

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By Brian Dabbs

The sprawling Senate energy package is again sowing discord among environmental groups, but one of their biggest Senate allies says the bill may provide a good opportunity for bipartisanship.

Friends of the Earth and Food and Water Watch are spearheading opposition to the bill (S. 1460), branding it a “pro-fracking” measure that perpetuates U.S. dependence on fossil fuel energy. But other conservation-minded groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy, argue that the legislation’s public lands provisions outweigh any drawbacks.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are pushing for Senate floor time for the bill before the now-delayed August recess. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, said it’s so far not on the chamber’s schedule.

The nearly-900 page bill, which generated similar environmental crossfire last Congress, would require the Energy Department to expedite approval of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export projects and authorize funding for methane hydrate research. A broad range of energy efficiency measures, power grid modernization, and cybersecurity provisions are also included.

Dissent Faces Uphill Battle

Environmental critics are pressuring lawmakers to reject the bill, but face an uphill battle. So far, no Democrat has publicly voiced opposition.

“There’s been no slaking of the thirst for bipartisan work because none’s been available, and I think in energy, there are areas where we can work together,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is one of environmental groups’ biggest Senate allies, told Bloomberg BNA. “We’re not going to agree on everything, but it’s worth a try.”

A nearly identical version of the legislation passed the Senate last Congress with no Democrats voting against it and 85 total votes in favor.

Still, the legislation would entrench natural gas into the U.S. energy portfolio for years to come, which would exacerbate climate change, Ben Schreiber, political strategist at Friends of the Earth, told Bloomberg BNA.

“You can’t add energy efficiency measures to a ‘pro-fracking’ bill and sell it as a good bill. This takes us in the wrong direction,” Scheiber said.

The legislation would compel the Energy Department to make a decision on an LNG export project within 45 days of approval at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) or Maritime Administration. Separately, the bill would require FERC and other regulators to finalize a decision on natural gas pipelines 90 days after an environmental review, while also requiring all federal and state agencies to show deference to FERC.

Natural gas production continues to skyrocket due to hydraulic fracturing. Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal, but environmental groups say a transition to carbon-free energy is needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Conservation Support

Meanwhile, the legislation includes permanent reauthorization of an Interior Department program designed to acquire federal land and dole out state conservation assistance grants. Democrats and many Republicans on Capitol Hill praise the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a critical conservation tool.

The acquisitions aim to protect natural resources and facilitate tourism. Interior officials use the fund, which is derived from offshore energy development revenue, to absorb some of the nearly 3 million acres of private land existing with national park boundaries, the National Park Service says.

The Senate package also tacks on a new fund, the National Park Service Maintenance and Revitalization Conservation Fund.

It also would draw revenue from offshore production would pay for “high-priority deferred maintenance needs of the [National Park Service] that support critical infrastructure and visitor services.” None of those funds would be used for acquisition, according to the bill.

‘On Balance, We’re Supporting’

Those provisions, along with some other habitat conservation programs, are fueling support among some environmental groups. “On balance this is a bill we’re supporting,” Josh Saks, legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), told Bloomberg BNA.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), one of the lawmakers that tried to negotiate a compromise on the bill last Congress, opposes the LWCF authorization without substantial changes to the program. Bishop labeled the bill a “federal land grab.”

Saks said a bicameral conference this Congress may chip away at the authorization language, particularly with President Donald Trump in the White House.

The Nature Conservancy joins NWF in urging support but echoes that concern. “We always worry about how process in Congress will play out,” Tom Cors, director of lands at The Nature Conservancy, told Bloomberg BNA. “But I think the desire to have an energy bill is something that would allow for conservation provisions to prevail.”

The Senate hasn’t passed a large-scale energy bill since 2007.

Democratic Defections?

Despite the conservation provisions, opponents of the bill are “making traction” in enticing Democrats to oppose the bill, Mitch Jones, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, told Bloomberg BNA.

Food and Water Watch teamed up with Friends of the Earth and other organizations to pressure Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to oppose the bill. Food and Water Watch has organized 500 calls on the issue to Schumer’s office and nearly 3,000 Senate-wide, Jones told Bloomberg BNA.

The bill would authorize $10 million annually for the Energy Department to develop advanced cybersecurity protections against grid attacks and sanction current and former FERC commissioners that disclose critical infrastructure information.

“Our critical infrastructure is under attack by the Russians, and we need to do more for cyber infrastructure security,” Cantwell told Bloomberg BNA. “I like this package and would like to get this package done.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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