Senate Passes Energy Bill, Looks to Conference With House

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By Ari Natter

April 20 — The Senate voted 85–12 April 20 to pass what could be the first broad energy bill in nearly a decade, putting in motion what is expected to be a formal conference to work out the differences with the House version of the bill.

The 424-page bill (S. 2012) includes a wide range of provisions, including measures to expedite the federal approval process for liquefied natural gas exports, streamline the approval process for electric transmission lines, increase cybersecurity protections for the electricity grid and expedite the licensing process for hydropower projects.

The five-part Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, also incorporates the bulk of long-stalled energy efficiency legislation (S. 720). That bill would authorize funding for measures to increase energy conservation in the federal data centers, establish voluntary national model building codes and boost energy efficiency in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, among other things. In addition, it contains amendments to boost funding for brownfields remediation grants, establish a task force to analyze and assess the natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in Los Angeles County and authorize billions in funding for a coal carbon capture technology research program.

“I think the vote you see reflected this morning is indicative of the need to update and modernize our energy policies,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the bill's author, told reporters. If enacted the bill would be the first comprehensive energy bill since the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Formal Conference Ahead

Murkowski, speaking during a press conference following the bill's passage, told reporters she expected a formal conference to occur to work out the differences between the House's version (H.R. 8), which was approved in December despite objections from congressional Democrats and a White House veto threat.

“The last time there was a conference on an energy bill was in 2005. We’ve kind of forgotten how to do a conference around here,” Murkowski said. “I think it’s time we get back to that. It is my hope that it will be a full and a formal conference.”

Similar to the Senate's version, the House bill would expedite the Energy Department's consideration of licenses to export liquefied natural gas, but it also includes controversial provisions that would speed up the review time for federal permitting of natural gas pipelines and expedite the permitting process for cross-border energy projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline (232 ECR, 12/3/15).

“Our newfound energy abundance has completely flipped the script, and it’s time our energy laws caught up to the 21st century,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement. “I look forward to conferencing with our counterparts in the Senate as we work to advance H.R. 8 into law and keep energy prices affordable for all Americans.”

The Senate bill is supported by groups representing companies ranging from liquefied natural gas exporters Cheniere Energy Inc. and Devon Energy Corp. to utilities such as National Grid.

Environmental Groups Oppose Bill

At the same time, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club oppose the bill because of provisions requiring federal land management agencies to develop expedited review processes for new mining permits and language creating a pilot program designed to expedite oil and gas permitting and drilling.

The bill also would subsidize the conversion of coal to other products like transportation fuels and would delay new energy efficiency standards for furnaces being crafted by the Energy Department, according to the environmental groups.

“The Senate has missed a chance to make progress on energy policy, passing a bill that has gotten worse over time,” Marc Boom, associate government affairs director at the NRDC, said in a statement. “The positive steps the bill would encourage are far outweighed by provisions that would delay movement to a clean energy economy and undermine action on climate change.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com