Tale of 2 Murkowski Bills: Bipartisan and Not

Sens. Cantwell and Murkowski speak to reporters.
Sens. Cantwell and Murkowski speak to reporters.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski passed two major bills out of the Senate Energy Committee today, each containing priorities she’s been working on since she became chairman of that panel. One bill would lift the crude oil export ban and give states like Alaska a share of federal off-shore oil revenues. It passed on a party-line vote. The other is a national energy policy focused on efficiency, job training and modernizing the electric grid. It passed the committee overwhelmingly. Each bill reflects elements of the senator’s legislative style.

Download Audio

Murkowski and Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Energy panel, held a joint victory press conference after the committee approved the broad national energy bill. Cantwell says when she was first on the Committee, they couldn’t even pass a bill to prevent electric blackouts, even though the West Coast had already endured massive blackouts.

“And people kept saying, ‘Oh no we have to wait for a big energy package,'” Cantwell recalled. “No we don’t! The transformation in energy is happening much more rapidly. We should get what we can get done now.”

That kind of thinking — approve the essentials now, deal with controversies later – was the guiding principal Murkowski employed on the national policy bill. The bill is replete with unsexy stuff, like legislative housekeeping, to repeal out-of-date energy laws. Murkowski claims her favorite part of the bill is that it eliminates the need for the Energy Department to produce scores of useless annual reports. Murkowski says, sure, they could have aimed for more pointed legislation.

“But you know what? We haven’t updated our energy policies in eight-plus years,” she said. “And it’s just so past

The Senate Energy panel considered stacks of amendments. (Photo: Senate staff, via Twitter.)
The Senate Energy panel considered stacks of amendments. (Photo: Senate staff, via Twitter.)

time.”

Both senators say the nation’s energy infrastructure has to be ready to take advantage of new technologies – like new sources of generation and storage. To reach common ground, though, they had to convince other committee members to dial back on home-state priorities if they were controversial. Cantwell says it helped that Murkowski invited every member to present any bill they wanted to the committee. They held dozens of hearings on issues that never made it into the final package.

“People just took some of those regional issues that they desperately wanted to get, and said ‘yeah, I know if I put this in here, I might be able to win the vote, but then it’s never going to go anywhere,'” Cantwell said.

Of course, the lack of local priorities leaves the senators with few headline issues to go home and campaign on. Murkowski says pushing their individual agendas would not have been successful.

“If we hadn’t moved this out today, we would have been delivering 100 percent of nothing to our constituents,” Murkowski said.

The bill still faces an uncertain future on the Senate floor. The other bill the committee passed, though, is certainly more controversial. It’s got a long name: The OffShore Production and Energizing National Security Act, or for short, OPENS. It would encourage more off-shore drilling, and provide revenue-sharing for Alaska and other states. It would also allow Shell and other companies with leases in the Arctic an extra 10 years to develop them, beyond their lease deadlines.

Ending the crude export ban is part of this bill, too. Oil market analyst Jamie Webster, a senior director of research at the firm IHS, favors lifting the ban, and he says he’s been watching Murkowski take on the issue.

“A lot of us kind of nerdy types have been talking about oil exports for a while, but she was the first big political figure to come out and say ‘this needs to happen,'” Webster says.

Murkowski says the ban is outdated and harms the economy. Others, though, say it amounts to exporting refinery jobs and they worry it will raise fuel prices. Murkowski launched her effort to repeal the ban at the start of 2014, with a speech at a Washington think tank. Webster says she was pragmatic and realized it would take time to bring others along.

“She could have started to kind of push it right then, but instead very much took the stance of saying it would be the year of the report, which it actually ended up being,” Webster said.

Whether her patience will be rewarded remains to be seen. Several reports concluded that lifting the ban won’t boost prices at the pump, but no Democrats voted for the OPENS bill in the energy committee, some of them citing price concerns.