Beyond the energy omnibus: a look at Sen. Murkowski’s hard-to-pass bills

The head of the Senate Energy Committee has crafted a comprehensive energy plan. But she left her most ambitious initiatives to be battled over separately.

  • Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, smiles as she whispers to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a markup of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., last July.

    Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
 

Lisa Murkowski wants to revamp America’s outdated energy policy. That’s why she’s shepherding a package through the Senate that could have lasting effects on how energy in the West is developed, stored and brought to our homes and cities. The 357-page package is a testament to negotiation — an example, the Alaska senator says, of what Republicans are capable of when they’re in control.

What’s most striking, though, is what it’s lacking. There’s no mention of drilling in the Arctic, transferring public lands to state control or ending the ban on crude exports.

Murkowski personally believes that such measures are key to America’s energy future, but she also knows they’re controversial enough to derail her energy package’s chance of passing. Still, that doesn’t mean she’s giving up. In addition to her bipartisan energy package (S.2012), Murkowski has introduced dozens of additional bills and amendments this year — more in the past nine months than in any of her previous 24-month-long Congresses.

Among them is a bill (S.1312) that would end the 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports. At first glance, it seems straightforward: Big Oil and its GOP supporters want to lift the export ban to encourage more domestic drilling. Environmental groups counter that doing so would cause the release of more planet-warming carbon into the atmosphere.

But beneath the surface, the debate is complicated. Though oil producers support exports, oil refiners oppose them, because exports would likely drive up the price of the domestic crude that refiners currently get at a discount. The effects of this on consumer prices at the gas pump are also uncertain, and the politics are murky, too: While many Democrats oppose the measure, some, like Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would lift the ban in exchange for renewable energy legislation. (For a more in-depth look, see “A crude oil export ban primer,”
hcne.ws/crude-ban
.)

Another of Murkowski’s bills (S.2011) seeks to open more of the Arctic Ocean to drilling by forcing the federal government to offer additional leases there. And an amendment that’s already passed the Senate would facilitate the process of transferring lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to state control. National parks and monuments would still be managed by the federal government, but drilling, mining and logging on 530 million acres would be decided by states — many of which are ravenous for development and less than stringent on environmental protection.

The amendment, which offers few specifics, is largely symbolic. But that doesn’t mean it’s innocuous. Micha Rosenoer, a Conservation Colorado organizer who’s fighting the land-transfer movement, notes that it’s helped amp up anti-federal sentiment among groups like the Oath Keepers and encouraged more concrete measures that may be introduced this fall.

Yet despite all the debate they’ve incited outside Capitol Hill, most of Murkowski’s bills have yet to be considered by the full Senate — and with Congress’ current focus on passing a 2016 budget, many may never make it that far. There’s no date for Murkowski’s energy package to be heard by the floor, but spokesman Robert Dillon says that when the time comes, the senator will be ready.

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The rise of Lisa Murkowski