Enviros urge Senate Dems to sink conference

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Top environmental groups are calling on Senate Democrats to vote against going to conference with the House on energy legislation, saying the lower chamber’s bill would undercut key environmental laws.

Nearly two dozen groups — including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters — made their case against the House bill in a letter to senators yesterday.

“America needs a forward-thinking, bipartisan update to our nation’s energy policies,” they wrote. “Yet, the legislation sent over from the House of Representatives undermines the progress our nation needs.

“Their amendment substituted a bipartisan energy bill with a long list of extreme ideological provisions that would take us backwards on many of our critical environmental priorities.”

The groups added that the House bill “undermines many of our current protections including those secured under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Equal Access to Justice Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other key laws.”

Among the “troubling provisions” the groups cite are on energy efficiency, cuts to the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy “and the rubber stamping of new pipelines through national parks.”

The pressure from environmentalists raises new questions about whether there will be 60 votes in the Senate to go to conference, a vote that Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday could happen as soon as tomorrow.

Murkowski noted that she and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) would meet with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and their respective ranking members, Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona.

“We’re going to have another meeting … and hopefully be able to move from there,” Murkowski told reporters. That meeting is expected later today.

Asked about the timing of a vote, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said he would like to see the conference get underway, noting the joint statement from Upton and Bishop this week acknowledging their hope for a final bill the president will sign (E&ENews PM, June 20).

“Some of the House members said they want to put something on the president’s desk that he’ll sign, and I’m all for that,” he said.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Energy panel, said yesterday he was unaware of the timing of a vote to go to conference but signaled he would oppose it.

“My inclination is that the House bill is so unacceptable that I’m not sure that a conference would be very productive,” he said in an interview.

Another Energy Democrat, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, suggested that negotiators could reconcile at least part of the competing bills informally.

“I think having a process like what we saw with the education bill, where maybe things are pre-conference a little bit, to get something that can pass all three bars — House, Senate and the president’s signature — would be an ideal approach,” he told E&E Daily.

Should the Senate back a formal energy conference, it would be the first time the two bodies have done so since 2005, when the GOP-led Congress hashed out the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

While Congress enacted a second energy measure two years later outside the conference process, that effort marked the last major energy reform signed into law.

In their letter yesterday, the activists acknowledged the work of lawmakers “to return to regular order and work across party lines on energy policy.”

But they said “process isn’t the same as progress.” They wrote, “The House-passed amendment would undoubtedly take our country down the wrong track and contains so many controversial and problematic provisions it is impossible to see how agreement could be found. Rejecting a conference with the current House offer is essential to protect against harm to our environment.”