The bipartisan spirit underlying the Senate’s first foray into broad energy legislation in nearly a decade has endured through the initial days of debate, although stumbling blocks await senators when they return next week to finish the bill.
The chamber worked through a list of relatively noncontroversial amendments yesterday. Senators authorized new research into advanced nuclear reactors and boosted spending levels for the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E (Greenwire, Jan. 28; E&ENews PM, Jan. 28).
Lawmakers approved another batch of amendments by voice vote, which included measures to modernize energy policy for tribal land, expand research into water treatment facilities, reinstate the license for Montana’s Gibson Dam project and require a federal study on the feasibility of opening an ethane storage and distribution hub in the Marcellus, Utica and Rogersville shale plays.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) attributed the relatively smooth sailing early on to restraint on behalf of his colleagues.
"I think that’s part of it," he told E&E Daily yesterday. "People are not trying to offer nongermane, sort of messaging, amendments and gum up the process so far, and I keep my fingers crossed."
Cornyn also credited Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is managing the floor debate with ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
"I give a lot of credit to Senator Murkowski, who very skillfully in the committee process with Senator Cantwell, she wisely separated the more controversial issues like oil exports into a separate bucket," Cornyn said.
A Senate GOP aide yesterday credited both senators for sidestepping amendment pitfalls, saying both sides "are rowing in the same direction."
Murkowski and Cantwell agreed to champion a measure from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) to modernize terms in the U.S. Code relating to minorities, wiping "Eskimo, Oriental, Puerto Rican" and other outdated lingo from the books.
Lawmakers also agreed to incorporate an amendment from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to modify national goals for geothermal production to include cost-shared exploration drilling.
Poison pills on the horizon?
There may be trouble ahead for lawmakers wanting to keep the legislation bipartisan. The queue of potential amendments is lengthy and continues to grow.
Republicans yesterday signaled they’ll push ahead with trying to undo U.S. EPA’s new Clean Power Plan (E&ENews PM, Jan. 28). But even if the get a vote, rule critics will likely fall short of the necessary votes.
Liberal Democrats are plotting once again to put the Senate on the record regarding climate change. Details, however, are under wraps until next week, said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of the effort’s key champions.
Democrats also are determined to use the energy package as a vehicle for addressing the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. But they drew a cool response from Republicans over their $600 million amendment (E&ENews PM, Jan. 28).
Also on the horizon is a Republican-led push to stymie the Obama administration’s new moratorium on the leasing of federal coal reserves to mining companies. The Interior Department is studying the climate and economic impacts of leasing.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), from the country’s top coal-producing state, submitted an amendment to lift the moratorium the day President Obama leaves office, Jan. 20, 2017, even though the ongoing review will take years.
Amendment co-sponsor Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had already introduced an amendment to simply lift the moratorium unless Congress can be sure the administration will not hurt coal-field employment or federal revenues from coal leasing.
At least one coal-state Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, said he would support amendments to lift the moratorium. It’s not clear whether either will get a vote.
"It should be market-driven, but just saying you don’t want it," he said about leasing. "You’re not just going to do it because that’s your policy? That’s not acceptable."
Barrasso also proposed an amendment forbidding any increase in coal royalty rates unless Interior, the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agree it would not raise electricity prices or undermine grid reliability.
An amendment by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) would bar EPA from declaring individual counties in "nonattainment" with ozone standards unless it has an air quality monitor in that county.
As of last May, about one-quarter of some 3,100 counties nationwide had ozone monitors, the bulk of them clustered in urban areas, according to Johnson’s office.
The proposed requirement "is extremely important," Johnson said during an interview yesterday. "We want to make sure that we have measurements in all those counties, so that we’re not making assumptions."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and other Democrats proposed to block Interior from allowing drilling off the Atlantic coast.
Menendez also offered amendments to remove limits on oil spill liability and close what many Democrats call tax loopholes for big oil companies.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and other Democrats have introduced an amendment to require campaign finance disclosures for political donors who stand to receive revenues of $1 million or more from fossil fuels.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is targeting natural gas exports. He introduced an amendment to stop the approval of new applications if the administration determines exports would increase the price of natural gas for American consumers.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced an amendment to expand the government’s Rigs to Reefs program, which allows companies to save on decommissioning costs by turning their old Gulf of Mexico rigs into fish habitats.
The program has gradually increased its activity, but at a slow pace (EnergyWire, July 21, 2015). Vitter’s amendment would speed up the review process and create new "planning areas" where companies can tow rigs.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) introduced an amendment, backed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to support state net-metering policies to promote renewable energy.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced an amendment to revive his "National Park Access Act." The bipartisan measure to refund roughly $2 million that six states paid during the 2013 government shutdown to reopen parks has cleared committee in the last two sessions of Congress.
Flake’s legislation nearly passed on a voice vote last month but was one of several public lands bills blocked by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas who is also running for president (Greenwire, Dec. 18, 2015).
Democrats have filed amendments addressing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. But Republicans remain opposed to extending federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy protections to the territory (E&E Daily, Jan. 28).
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois offered an amendment to boost funding for DOE’s Office of Science in annual increments, from $5.4 billion in fiscal 2016 to $7.13 billion in fiscal 2020. The original language would have authorized about a billion dollars less for 2020.
The Office of Science is responsible for 10 of the nation’s 17 national laboratories and is the lead federal agency supporting basic science research for energy.
Democrats also offered amendments responding to a report last year offering recommendations on improving the effectiveness of the national labs. A congressionally mandated commission authored the report.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), for example, offered an amendment requiring the secretary of Energy "to ensure that the costs of general and administrative overhead" do not come from laboratory-directed research and development.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also proposed several amendments to streamline DOE’s management of national labs and ensure that they have more tools to partner with the private sector.
"I think your legislation is very much in the direction that we endorse," said TJ Glauthier, co-chair of the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, regarding the amendments.
"Laboratories ought to be freer to enter into agreements with private industry — especially small businesses are really hampered by not being able to do that easily," Glauthier said. "There are lots of companies out there who want to work with the laboratories, but it is time-consuming and cumbersome."
Reporters Sean Reilly, Christa Marshall, Emily Yehle, Dylan Brown and Corbin Hiar contributed.