The Senate’s big energy bill looked dead, but the coronavirus may revive it

By: Abby Smith

March 26, 2020

The Senate’s once-stalled bipartisan energy bill could see a new path emerge as Congress looks to reboot an economy hit hard by the pandemic.

The legislation, potentially the most comprehensive update to energy law in more than a decade, hit a snag in early March. Despite containing the priorities of more than 70 senators, the bill fell victim to partisan bickering over a tangential amendment that, while also bipartisan, had a handful of crucial conservative opponents.

That fight sunk two procedural votes, and lawmakers didn’t get much time to determine a new way forward. Senators dove straight into negotiations over back-to-back coronavirus relief packages.

Backers of the energy bill admit the pandemic could complicate its path, especially in an election year, when Congress’s typical August recess becomes a de facto deadline to legislate. But a new option is emerging: Talks over a longer-term coronavirus stimulus could be the energy bill’s next best chance to get signed into law.

“There’s new life for this energy bill during this crisis,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser for the Progressive Policy Institute.

“This crisis is going to be a test of the ability of the parties to put the economic priorities of the moment ahead of disagreements on climate,” added Bledsoe, who was a climate adviser in the Clinton White House.

Already, lawmakers and industry and advocacy groups are suggesting that a fourth coronavirus relief package, expected to be a longer-term stimulus, could include an infrastructure focus — with energy as a critical component.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Bledsoe and others say, Congress could return to the Senate’s energy bill. That measure, from Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and top committee Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has a heavy focus on energy innovation, including development and demonstration of emissions-cutting technologies such as carbon capture and advanced nuclear that are currently too expensive to be widely deployed.

It also has already been thoroughly vetted in the legislative process, said Heather Reams, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative clean energy and climate group. She said her group will advocate the bill be included in a longer-term stimulus package.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here where we do agree. Why don’t we start there?” Reams said. “The Senate energy bill is not a bad place to start for emissions reductions.”

Several elements of the Senate’s energy bill could also provide the kind of economic stimulus effect lawmakers will be looking for, said Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

For example, the energy bill includes more than a dozen demonstration programs ranging from carbon capture to advanced nuclear to energy storage. “These are steel and pipes-in-the-ground projects that would put people to work and also help prove out really important technologies that we’re going to need to decarbonize,” said Brad Townsend, managing director for strategic initiatives at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

There’s precedent, too, to include energy funding in stimulus legislation. The American Recovery Act, crafted by Congress and the Obama White House in 2009, appropriated $90 billion for clean energy investments.

Nonetheless, many are cautiously optimistic that the energy legislation could also still move forward on its own.

Backers of the bill point to movement in the Senate environment committee to resolve disputes over the amendment that held up votes. That amendment would reduce potent greenhouse gas refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons.

Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso was a major critic of that amendment, which was proposed by both his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Delaware’s Tom Carper, and Louisiana Republican John Kennedy. Starting Wednesday, the committee began accepting testimony on the HFC bill in lieu of an in-person hearing that had to be canceled due to the coronavirus.

Grace Jang, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee majority, called the environment panel’s move a “positive development.”

Moving the energy bill remains a priority for Murkowski and Manchin, as well as McConnell and Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, Jang told the Washington Examiner, adding, however, that she doesn’t have a specific timeline yet given the pandemic.

“It has also been more than 12 years since we updated our nation’s energy laws, so Sen. Murkowski looks forward to passing this common-sense legislation,” Jang added.

Supporters of the energy bill also say the House has an appetite to take up energy legislation this year. Townsend noted at least 20 of the bills incorporated into the Senate’s package have already been approved by either the House Science or House Energy and Commerce committees.

Nonetheless, even if the energy bill fails this year, climate advocates don’t see that as a death knell for bipartisanship on broader climate legislation. That’s because a bigger climate bill will require a much wider coalition behind it and bigger political trade-offs, said Sasha Mackler, who directs the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“You can sort of see a different tension and advocacy, and potentially liftoff, that you don’t see in a bill that people agree with but don’t necessarily love,” he said.

Reams said that success on the energy bill would pay dividends in the form of a “down payment on bipartisanship” on climate change.

“If you’re playing a longer game, you want to see that bill pass,” she said, because it’s “going to give Republicans something to talk about back at home about addressing emissions,” she said. “That positive reinforcement will beget a greater willingness to do more.”


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