Senate prepares to vote on big energy bill this week

Source: By Steven Mufson and Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, March 2, 2020

\Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) stops in the hall to greet Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting in 2015. (Andrew Harnik for The Washington Post)

In a divided Congress that has trouble passing anything, can energy policy be an exception?

The Senate is preparing to vote this week on a major piece of legislation designed to move the country toward using cleaner sources of energy. The sprawling bill binds together about 50 energy-related proposals and would touch nearly every part of the nation’s energy sector.

But critics are already calling the package a hodgepodge of modest steps at a time when the planet is careening toward dangerous levels of warming and more ambitious legislation is needed to wean the world’s biggest economy off polluting fossil fuels.

Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, introduced the 555-page measure Thursday with the hope of winning over the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), eager to bring it to the floor, signaled a vote could happen as early as this week.

The bill, dubbed the American Energy Innovation Act, isn’t specifically about climate change. The word “climate” appears only once in a two-page summary of the bill. But it does support some ways of slowing down the release of heat-trapping emissions.

Manchin said the legislation would “make a down payment on emissions-reducing technologies, reassert the United States’ leadership role in global markets, enhance our grid security, and protect consumers.”

Murkowski said in a statement that the bill was “our best chance to modernize our nation’s energy policies in more than 12 years.” She said that “we can promote a range of emerging technologies that will help keep energy affordable even as it becomes cleaner and cleaner.”

The measure comes as congressional Republicans have started to gingerly reposition themselves on the issue of climate change, with many of them acknowledging that it is real and exacerbated by mankind. But most GOP lawmakers and President Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” are still shying away from addressing climate change head on.

The Murkowski-Manchin bill would tackle greenhouse gas emissions from different angles.

It would mandate greater energy efficiency in federal buildings, offer rebates for consumers who buy more efficient motors for home appliances, extend for 15 years incentives for hydroelectric power, and put money toward research for wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as advanced batteries.

With regard to nuclear energy, which produces half the nation’s carbon-free power, the legislation would accommodate licensing light-water reactors and provide money for new nuclear technologies.

And the package also establishes a study for technology using coal and natural gas, and funds techniques for capturing carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, and using it in industrial processes.

The bill has the backing of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s global energy institute, which urged the Senate to pass the bill “without delay.” Yet it was met with mixed reaction from environmentalists, complicating how Democrats will ultimately vote on the measure.

The Environmental Defense Fund praised the package for taking “useful steps” to tackle climate change. “At a time of increasing polarization in Washington, bipartisan leadership on climate is all the more crucial,” said Elizabeth Gore, the group’s senior vice president for political affairs.

But Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the bill does too little to slash the use of fossil fuels when U.N. scientists say the world needs to drastically slash emissions over the next decade to forestall dangerous warming. “This gargantuan bill does little to address the climate crisis,” she said.

Another controversial part of the bill concerns mining.

The bill would require the federal government to designate a list of critical minerals and encourage it to “complete federal permits efficiently.”

Murkowski has long warned that the country relies too heavily on foreign nations, such as China, for importing minerals vital for making car batteries, digital camera lenses and other high-tech devices. The United States imports at least 50 percent of 46 minerals, including widely known metals such as tin and zinc and more exotic elements such as rare-earth elements.

But some environmentalists worry the bill would pave the way for more domestic mining without properly taking the environmental ramifications into account. The Sierra Club’s Melinda Pierce called the mining provision one of the bill’s “egregious nonstarters.”

It’s unclear what chance any energy bill that emerges from the Senate stands of being taken up by the Democratic leaders in the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office declined to comment.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats plan to push Republicans to include amendments to extend tax breaks for wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, and to beef up building codes to make new homes and businesses more energy efficient.

“Senate Republicans who claim to want to do something about climate change face a big test next week,” Schumer said Friday. “Will they join Senate Democrats in fighting for and passing bipartisan provisions that will address climate change in a significant way, or will they continue to do Big Oil’s bidding and block any progress?”