Washington Examiner: Biggest update to energy law in a decade heads to Senate with bipartisan support

Senators, including key Democrats such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, voted overwhelmingly on Monday to start debating what could be the most comprehensive update to U.S. energy law in more than a decade.

Schumer, in remarks before the vote, said he would vote yes “as a show of good faith” after talks with the bill’s sponsors, Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about a “fair amendment process.

Senators voted 84-3 to start consideration of the energy bill, introduced on Feb. 27 by Murkowski and Manchin. The legislation, S. 2657, the American Energy Innovation Act, contains pieces of more than 50 bills that have already cleared the Senate Energy Committee.

Two Republicans, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and one Democrat, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, voted no.

The bill includes provisions to boost technologies such as advanced nuclear, energy storage, and carbon capture through dedicated funding and demonstration programs. It also would boost investments in energy efficiency, geothermal power, and emissions-cutting technologies in the industrial sector.

Nonetheless, Democrats want to get their Republican colleagues to go further. They’ll be offering amendments that would tack on extensions of tax credits for wind and solar energy and electric cars to the energy package. Those amendments, though, could undercut Republican support for the bill, particularly any extension of the electric car tax credits, which many oil-state Republicans have sought to kill entirely and the White House has explicitly opposed.

“Democrats want amendments to the energy bill so [that] we can make real progress on climate change,” Schumer said.

“Few pieces of legislation offer more opportunity for progress on climate than those that concern our energy policy,” he said, adding he hopes for Republican support on the “substantive” amendments Democrats will offer.

A bipartisan duo is also hoping to add their legislation to the mix, though it appears they haven't quite convinced Republican leadership. Louisiana Republican John Kennedy and Delaware Democrat Tom Carper have been in talks to arrange a vote on their bipartisan bill to limit hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, refrigerant chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases, both senators told reporters Monday. Their bill has more than 30 co-sponsors split between both parties and is backed strongly by appliance manufacturers, chemical-makers, industry trade groups, and environmental advocates.

"I'm raising all manner of hell" to get a vote on the bill as an amendment, Kennedy said, adding several other bills that could be offered as amendments "don't have even close" to the number of bipartisan co-sponsors.

Carper downplayed fears the White House would oppose the overall energy bill if the HFC provisions were added. The White House has shied away from advancing a global deal to phase down the chemicals, struck during the Obama administration, despite its strong industry support.

"I can't imagine they would do that, with legislation that has all the virtues of this, creating jobs and doing good things for our planet — strong bipartisan support," Carper said. "Why would any president reject that?"

Kennedy said, though, that he's getting some pushback from senators on even allowing a vote on the HFC measure. He wouldn't name names, but he said they're opposing a vote because "they're scared it will pass."

Backers of the overall energy bill are hoping the amendment process doesn’t sink the legislation, which they say could pave the way for commercializing emerging, more capital-intensive emissions-cutting technologies.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, said in a letter to lawmakers Monday that it would include votes on the legislation in its annual scorecard.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions at lower costs requires technological innovation,” Chamber President Suzanne Clark wrote, adding the bill’s passage “would both fuel American innovation and promote global climate action.”

Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative clean energy group, said the bill, by his group’s count, includes the setup of more than 17 major demonstration programs by 2025 for nascent clean energy technologies, including advanced nuclear, carbon capture, and energy storage.

Those programs would help get those technologies “from zero to one,” he told reporters. “That’s going to be the most lasting legacy from this legislation.”

The bill’s sponsors, too, are stressing that their colleagues shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

“You’re going to have some people who might say, ‘Well, this measure doesn’t solve climate change. You haven’t worked to reduce emissions to zero,’” Murkowski said during remarks on the floor ahead of the vote. “I will stand before you and acknowledge that that is the case.”

But Murkowski said the bill is a “necessary first step to update, to refresh, to modernize energy policies that haven’t seen an upgrade, if you will, in a dozen years to help incent these technologies that will get us to that cleaner energy future, that will really allow for a level of transition that we seek, and will help protect the environment.”

Following the vote, Murkowski also warned her Democratic colleagues that trying to add tax-related provisions as amendments, such as extensions of wind, solar, and electric vehicle incentives, would result in a "blue slip" from the House, where tax policy must originate.

That would "effectively kill" the bill, she said, adding, "This is too big a bill to kill."

Manchin, too, said, “This bill alone will not solve climate change, but it is a critical step in the right direction” for the United States and the world. He added that 39 of the 53 bills the bill draws on are bipartisan measures.’

By:  Abby Smith
Source: Washington Examiner