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Senators Say Door Still Open for Energy Bills After Impeachment

Jan. 28, 2020, 11:30 AM

Senators immersed in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial still hold out hope for several clean energy, conservation, and energy efficiency measures this year, despite floor time that will be lost to the trial and election-year campaigning.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began discussions with committee chairmen last month to ready legislative packages, focusing on bills that have already been reported out of committee and could be moved as soon as the impeachment trial is over. An energy package is among them, according to Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

More than 70 bills were advanced out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2019, including measures to boost wind energy and and new incentives for battery storage to accommodate more power from clean energy. Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) plans to narrow those to a list of measures that moved through her panel with solid bipartisan backing to improve their odds of getting on the floor.

“It’s challenging, because around here, the conventional wisdom is that during an election year you don’t typically see substantive legislative reform initiatives,” Murkowski said in an interview. “Then you throw in this very unusual situation we have with impeachment.”

Variety of Bills

Among the bills the energy committee marked up with bipartisan support in 2019 that could make it into a package:

  • The BEST Act (S. 1602, H.R. 2986), to establish research and demonstration programs for grid-scale energy storage systems, sponsored by Republican Susan Collins of Maine, with six Republican cosponsors, including Cory Gardner of Colorado;
  • Gardner’s Enhancing Grid Security through Public-Private Partnerships Act (S. 2095. H.R. 359), which calls for strengthening the grid against cybersecurity and other threats;
  • The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act (S. 2137, H.R. 3962), which proposes boosting energy efficiency in residential, federal, and industrial buildings, by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). It ran into some GOP opposition at the Sept. 25 committee markup but still cleared the panel by a 14-6 margin;
  • The Grid Modernization Act (S. 2332) and Energy Cybersecurity Act (S. 2333), both by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), that would direct the Energy Department to develop standards to compare different types of electricity storage and develop advanced cybersecurity technologies. Both were approved by voice vote, though Barrasso and Mike Lee (R-Utah) objected and were recorded as no votes on both bills;
  • The Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500, H.R. 1225), to tackle the growing maintenance backlog at national parks, introduced by Portman (R-Ohio) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). The bill was approved in committee 15-5; and
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act (S. 1081, H.R. 3195), to fully fund the conservation program, by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), reported out of committee 13-7.

Storage, Wind Tax

Bills already cleared by committees may have a leg up on legislation bottled up in committees during the impeachment trial, as Senate committees can’t mark up bills during the trial, a spokesman for McConnell said.

Murkowski has another incentive for action this year: She can’t serve as energy committee chairman or ranking Republican after 2020 under Senate Republican Conference rules.

Collins, whose race is considered a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, touts her BEST Act battery energy bill that would create an Energy Department energy storage program and speed deployment of energy storage projects. “If we can figure out storage, that is the Holy Grail for using more alternative energy sources,” Collins said.

Collins said she and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) also have been quietly building support for their Incentivizing Offshore Wind Power Act (S. 1988) to extend the investment tax credit for wind power for at least six more years. It’s the kind of measure that both parties could support, she said, in contrast to more ambitious proposals with no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Combining Bills

Manchin is bullish on moving an energy package to the floor and is floating the idea of combining some energy bills with conservation and parks measures.

One would fully fund the LWCF; a second would address longstanding backlogs in national parks maintenance.

But fully funding the LWCF program might come with with some sticker shock: The Congressional Budget Office estimated Jan. 21 that Congress would gradually increase annual spending to $900 million over 10 years if the bill was signed into law. But doing so would increase budget deficits by more than $5 billion.

Alex Flint, a Republican staff director for the Energy and Natural Resources panel from 2003 to 2006, said he’d look for a similar public lands deal in late 2020, possibly in the lame-duck session after the election.

The energy committee and Murkowski “never give up and can be counted on to press for a package of lands and energy legislation until the last hours of the Senate,” Flint said.

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

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