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Environment & Energy Report

Bipartisan Duo Emerges as Senate Panel Sets Course on Energy

Jan. 18, 2019, 2:44 PM

Both senators come from rural, fossil-fuel-producing states with large swaths of poverty. Both have angered climate advocates. And both have backed President Donald Trump’s energy and environment nominees.

But Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, say the latter’s elevation to the ranking Democrat slot is going to shift the committee’s focus over the next two years in some surprising ways.

One is a step that has been a rarity in the Senate since Republicans took control in 2015: a Senate committee hearing on climate change.

“Keep in mind that while I come from a producing state. I am also from a state that is seeing the most immediate impact from warming,” Murkowski said, citing melting sea ice and thawing permafrost, the normally frozen subsurface layer of soil in polar regions.

“I can’t be in a position where we just ignore the issue and pretend that it just goes away,” Murkowski said.

Climate change caused Manchin some headaches months ago when climate advocates tried, but failed, to derail his promotion to top Democrat on the committee.

That opposition was triggered by Manchin’s pro-coal views and animosity to climate legislation, perhaps best demonstrated by a 2010 ad in which he vowed to take “dead aim” and then fired a gun at a copy of a President Barack Obama-backed cap-and-trade bill.

Manchin rejects the notion he is an obstacle to any climate legislation, but wants to ensure that economic costs of any climate action are being considered. He wants to avoid “our emotions getting ahead of us and what the facts are,” he told Bloomberg Environment.

New Energy Bill

Murkowski said Manchin’s arrival as ranking Democrat comes at a time when the committee likely will have to start from scratch on an energy bill, given the enormous changes in the sector since the last energy law was signed, in 2007.

“We are going to have to do a new energy bill, in my view,” Murkowski told Bloomberg Environment. “But when you think of how the energy sector has changed in past 10 years, it’s extraordinary and our policies haven’t kept pace.”

Manchin succeeds Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who left the ranking energy position to be top Democrat on the Senate commerce panel, though she still has a seat on the energy committee.

A bipartisan energy bill shepherded by Murkowski and Cantwell languished in December 2016, after passing the Senate but not the House. The bill covered a broad range of energy efficiency measures, power grid modernization, and cybersecurity provisions.

Action is needed on climate and energy, environmentalists say. They call for better use of natural landscapes for climate resilience, clean energy incentives but also “efficiency improvements, carbon capture, all of it,” Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said.

Manchin said his “conciliatory” nature will help him build support for comprehensive legislation, including measures to bolster carbon capture and storage, which isn’t yet deployable at commercial scale for power plants because of cost.

“West Virginia energy and natural resources are something that we have an abundance of; we have been a great provider in the country and want to continue to do that,” he said.

He told Bloomberg Environment he’ll back “an all-in energy policy” from a variety of sources.

Geography Lesson

Manchin also said he’ll be a natural fit with many Western senators from states that are large fossil fuel producers. Historically, differences over energy policy often broke along regional rather than political lines.

Many of the committee’s recent leaders have come from the West, including Oregon (Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden), New Mexico (former Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman and GOP Sen. Pete Domenici), and Alaska (Republican Frank Murkowski, Lisa Murkowski’s father).

“I’m going to work with my colleagues on the Western” issues, he said.

Cantwell said all senators need to seek alignments, whether geographic or based on the industry mix in their states, particularly in reaching out to members across the aisle.

“I think he’s thinking of an alignment based on, you know, product, or energy source, versus regional interests,” she said. But regional interests “are, you know, famous around here, writ large.”

Murkowski’s Climate Record

Murkowski’s record on climate change is mixed: She has long worried about how a warming planet is affecting Alaska, but also led efforts targeting the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under Obama.

Largely forgotten is her 2007 backing of the Low Carbon Economy Act, a cap-and-trade bill she co-sponsored with four Democrats and three Republicans that she likened at the time to purchasing “an insurance policy against catastrophic climate effects at relatively little cost.”

But having the House controlled by Democrats presents an opportunity, Murkowski said.

GOP control of both chambers didn’t translate into passage of her 2016 energy bill, which died in the closing weeks of the 114th Congress after negotiators couldn’t reach deals on differing versions that had already passed both the House and Senate.

House Democrats ready to push climate change and clean energy legislation is an opportunity, she said, “and what I have to do is make the absolute best of every opportunity I am given.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com