How Murkowski crafted an energy bill that 80 senators have a stake in

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo)

The U.S. Senate is the final resting place for a lot of legislation, but this week it revived Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s energy modernization bill, which had been in a coma since February as senators feuded over what to do about the Flint water crisis.

The energy bill’s passage today is a political coup for Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

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The bill sailed through the Senate, by a vote of 85-12. And not for nothing, because Murkowski says she included policy priorities — and sometimes entire bills — from 80 senators.

“Sen. Cantwell and I, as managers of the bill on the Senate floor, did everything we could to make sure this was a bipartisan bill, from committee start to the finish on the floor,” Murkowski told reporters today, referring to Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Energy Committee.

Their bill has no single signature issue. It’s a mash-up of ideas from left and right, leaving out the more controversial ones.

It allows more money for renewable energy research and deployment. It also continues fossil fuel research and streamlines regulation for oil, gas and mining. A key selling point for Democrats is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for public land acquisition.

A big feature for Republicans is a requirement to speed permit processing for LNG terminals. That was motivated by Lower 48 projects, but Murkowski also added a provision specifically for the big Alaska gas pipeline, a project still on the drawing board for lack of about $50 billion. Murkowski’s bill would move the pipeline’s right of way as it passes through Denali National Park, to avoid a seismic fault.

“What we’re trying to do is anticipate ahead of time any hurdle that might be in the way. Get it out of the way, which is what we have done with this proposal,” Murkowski said.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association praises the bill, for solving the gas line corridor problem and easing the industry’s regulatory burden.

Rob Cowin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is an advocate for clean energy. He likes the bill. Sort of.

“Just to be completely blunt about it, we really do think there’s a missed opportunity here with respect to the climate crisis,” he said.

He wrote a blog post headlined “Senate Energy Bill Better than Doing Nothing.” But he really does mean that. He says the bill IS better for clean energy than no bill, particularly on energy research and modernizing the electric grid, and better than the House-passed bill.

“The (Senate) bill does a lot of good things, with things like micro-grids, battery storage, just essentially a better understanding of how to integrate renewables into the grid.”

Cowin says Murkowski had to cope with difficult politics, and he credits her willingness to compromise to avoid partisan impasse.

“She’s very pragmatic and she honestly wanted to get something done and she understood that she had to work with the other party to do that,” he said. “I’m not sure that the House approaches things that way.”

The only senators to vote against the bill were Republicans. The conservative Heritage Action group panned the bill, saying it would create more government meddling in energy matters. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, likes the bill.

The House passed a very different energy bill, which Murkowski describes as “pretty much a Republican bill.” Murkowski’s next challenge will be to negotiate a version of the two bills that can pass both chambers.