Murkowski unveils energy plan for the nation

Highlights and what it would mean for Western states.

 

The last time the United States updated its energy strategy, the iPhone didn’t exist. George W. Bush was still president. And the energy landscape looked entirely different than it does today: The cost of putting solar panels on your roof was twice as expensive, and the U.S. only produced about 5 million barrels of crude oil a day, compared to around 9.5 million today. “I want to actually make some changes to our energy policy,” Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski told reporters in May. “We haven't done that since 2007; it's way past time.”

It is way past time — as Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva wrote in an opinion piece for High Country News last week, the country desperately needs a policy that matches conditions on the ground. But yesterday 11 major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Rivers, came out against the bipartisan effort that Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., spent months hammering out. The groups wrote in a letter that while they “appreciate the forward-thinking provisions in the bill,” there are others that “could cause detrimental effects to public health and the environment.” Unless those provisions are addressed, they won’t support the bill. 

Yet the very provisions causing environmental groups consternation are the ones that make the energy overhaul appealing to Republican senators like Steve Daines of Montana or John Barrasso of Wyoming — and give the sprawling, 357-page package a fighting chance. Murkowski says the package isn’t set in stone: the committee expects significant mark-ups, amendments and discussion in the months to come. And J. Bennett Johnston, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana and energy-policy insider, says that despite its imperfections, the bill still offers the best opportunity in years to update U.S. energy policy. “It’s not very controversial,” Johnston says. “It’s not world-shaking. But it’s got a lot of things in it they've been trying to pass for a long time, and I think it’s got a decent chance.” 

So what might be in store for the West? We dug through 357 pages of political jargon to find out. 

Efficiency

The package includes the Shaheen-Portman efficiency bill, an effort that’s languished for years because it got caught in the (unrelated) fight over Keystone XL but that’s “as non-controversial as you can get in Washington,” write Huffington Post reporters Kate Sheppard and Sabrina Siddiqui. The bill includes "incentives, opportunities, and funding to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings, houses, and appliances, but no mandatory standards,” and is predicted to “spur the creation of 190,000 jobs, save the country $16.2 billion a year on energy bills by 2030, and reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases.” Yet several provisions, including one that would end the requirement that federal buildings phase out fossil fuels, have drawn the ire of environmentalists. 

Infrastructure

The package goes a long way toward modernizing the electric grid in the West, in part by studying how public policies like the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard will (or won’t) affect the grid, and in part by improving grid storage, which complements the integration of clean energy. Improved grid storage can benefit the environment in other ways, too, says Allison Clements, a senior attorney with the NRDC. It often eliminates the need to build new generating plants and encourages energy sharing between states.

Yet the NRDC argues that a provision that would speed up the process of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to countries without free trade agreements with the U.S. would offset such gains, tying “our economy to fossil fuels at a time when we should be transitioning away from their use.” The Western senators who introduced the measure, Barasso and Martin Heinrich, D-NM, counter that LNG is cleaner than other fossil fuels and helps create jobs in states like New Mexico. 

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The West's enormous, interconnected grid could get a boost from a new Senate energy package.
Krista Langlois

Supply

Nuclear energy, coal mining and oil and gas development are nearly absent from the package — probably because Democrats and Republicans have a hard time finding common ground on such issues. Instead, the package tries to jump-start marine hydrokinetic energy, which has been mostly stalled in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska; sets up a noncompetitive leasing program for geothermal energy on public lands in the West; and assesses the supply of critical minerals for future mining. 

But the biggest focus is on hydropower. The bill would officially define hydro as a “clean” source of energy and end roadblocks that slow development and licensing, including the completion of the Clark Canyon and Gibson dams in Montana — which Sen. Daines says are important for creating a diverse mix of energy in the West. Yet John Seebach, Vice President for River Basin Coordination at American Rivers, says the bill is essentially “a hydropower industry wish list” and limits the authority that federal agencies have to require fish passage. “It’s about the industry not wanting to have to pay to restore fisheries that they wiped out decades ago by building hydropower dams without fish passage,” Seebach adds. 

Conservation Reauthorization 

The last section of the package includes the one provision that seemingly no one can find fault with: permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Since 1965, the LWCF has used revenue from Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) drilling to protect tens of millions of acres of public land, but it sunsets this September. The new bill doesn’t guarantee that the LWCF receive the full $900 million each year that it was intended to, but it’s “a huge step forward,” says Alan Rowsome of The Wilderness Society. It could also end the argument that LWCF funds be used to maintain current public lands rather than acquire new ones, since the deal includes the creation of a separate National Park Maintenance and Revitalization Fund (also funded through OCS receipts). 

Yet perhaps what’s most significant about the package is what’s not in there. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Drilling in the Arctic. Keystone XL. Ending the ban on crude exports. All of these are key issues for Murkowski and other legislators, but all are controversial and could hinder the chance of actually passing something. So while all are included in separate bills at various stages in Congress (and might be considered in the amendment process), none are part of the energy policy act. 

Plus, passing energy legislation through the Senate is one thing — getting something through the more polarized House is another. But Johnston thinks that if the Senate passes its package, it’ll give the House momentum to do the same. Both chambers will take up the issue again after the August recess.