On July 30, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee made a big dent in its to-do list, approving The Energy Modernization Act of 2015, the first energy policy reform bill since 2007. In an 18-4 vote on Thursday, the Senate Committee pushed “The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015” through committee. A similar bill, The Architecture of Abundance, was also passed unanimously out of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on July 23.

For years lawmakers have expressed the need to update the nation’s energy policies, and Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Cantwell (D-WA), have sought to work on bipartisan energy issues, and avoid third rail issues such as climate change, arctic drilling or the proposed lifting of the oil export ban. The resulting bill is a hodgepodge of energy sector reforms, and not necessarily the sweeping energy bill that has been called for.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle conveyed appreciation for the bipartisan nature of the final bill, the product of months of deliberation and several days of intense mark-up negotiations. “Today represents the first step in the long but important journey,” said Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “This committee has gone too long without moving energy policy legislation.”

One notable provision of the bill enhances U.S. capability to export liquefied natural gas by providing a streamlined permitting process for export projects. Another grants permanent reauthorization to two principal Federal conservation funds, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund, which were set to expire within months. The bill also strives to foster upgrades for the aging electrical grid, among other significant policy points.

Nearly 100 amendments were offered to the bill as it worked its way through the committee, but only a fraction were considered. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attempted to pass an amendment seeking formal recognition of climate change and its impacts by Congress, but failed by a vote of 9-13. A separate amendment offered by Sen. Sanders to provide grants for low-income families to purchase solar panels suffered the same fate. In addition to Senator Sanders, Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) voted no to the bill.

“No one’s getting everything they want, for sure,” said Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “But I do think that this is an impressive journey that we have gone down for the past several months.”  Indeed, not all are happy with the bill, and many environmentalists voiced stark opposition to the legislation this past week. In a July 27 letter addressed to Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, eleven prominent environmental groups— including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)—listed numerous provisions that could be detrimental to public health and the environment. “Unless these concerns are addressed, we are unable to support this bill,” reads the letter.

One particularly controversial inclusion cited by environmental groups is a provision to amend section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to allow the energy sector to violate environmental laws and regulations during an emergency or war. The Senate provision was mirrored in the House, where the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power introduced its own comprehensive energy reform bill on July 23.

The House bill, which goes into more detail than the Senate version, specifies that this rule would apply to all federal, state and local laws and regulations, and could be applied to generation, delivery, transmission and interchange of energy for 90 days, after which the emergency order would need to be reissued. If these provisions become law, it would allow the energy sector to ignore Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Air Toxics rule under certain circumstances.

Among top concerns of environmentalists, Murkowski agreed to drop provisions that would ease regulations on hydroelectric projects.  According to several environmental groups, the hydropower provision would have shifted environmental costs of hydroelectric dams to local communities and tax payers.  

Despite the flowery talk of bipartisanship, the new energy reform legislation is far from out of the woods. The bill must now survive full consideration in the Senate, where it is sure to face plenty of fresh scrutiny and a hearty debate. Furthermore, the bill will have to reconcile differences with the House version of energy policy reform before it can be finalized.  

EESI expects to closely follow the Energy bills through both the Senate and the House, check back for further analysis.


Author: Billy Lee


For more information see: 

The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 Section-by-Section, Joint Staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

BILIRAKIS on the Architecture of Abundance, House Energy and Commerce

Senate energy panel approves reform bill, The Hill

Green groups oppose Senate energy bill as drafted

Green groups come out against Senate energy reform bill, The Hill

Senate committee passes broad energy reform bill, Agri-Pulse

Sanders rebuffed on amendment stating climate change is real, The Hill