Senate Energy Bill Better than Doing Nothing

April 19, 2016 | 11:00 am
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

Today the Senate is expected to pass the Energy Policy and Modernization Act. From a clean energy standpoint the bill still falls far short of what is needed to promote more clean energy deployment. But there’s a lot to like in this bill and passing it is definitely better than doing nothing. Almost as important as the substance is the bipartisan way the bill was developed—proving you can still make progress on energy policy, albeit modest, in a Republican-controlled Senate.

I wish Congress would get serious about seizing the opportunities being created every day as part of the rapidly growing clean energy economy; we should be passing a much better bill. But soul-crushing compromise is what government looks like. When it works.


It took Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell to bring people together and make government work. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Now for the hard part: getting THIS bill to the president’s desk. While the Senate bill is better than doing nothing, the House version of the bill is worse than doing nothing. Whereas the Senate developed the bill and voted it out of the committee, and then the full chamber, in a bipartisan fashion, the House process was hijacked by partisanship relatively early on, and they ultimately passed a bad, party-line energy bill late last year.

The bills share some similar provisions to be sure, but as rare a thing as bipartisanship has been over the years between now and the last time Congress passed an energy bill (2007), a clean Senate bill is what should end up going to the president.

Senate function over House dysfunction

Lots of credit for this bill is due to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat (“Ranking Member”). At the outset of this process I heard many people say that we could never get a good energy bill out of Sen. Murkowski, and it wasn’t in Sen. Cantwell’s political interest to help pass a Republican energy bill when she could potentially be chair of the committee next year (if the Democrats re-take the Senate).

But they pressed on, and both senators should be applauded for showing the rest of Congress what functional, bipartisan governing looks like.

Sure, the Senate bill reflects more Republican energy priorities than Democratic ones (Republicans have a majority in the Senate). But it has some of both, and includes few controversial provisions that would have made bipartisanship more difficult.

And the process they followed made the bipartisanship easier:

This bill was almost killed by disagreement over funding for the victims and city of Flint, Michigan (a national crisis which remains unresolved), but in the end, the leadership of both parties in the Senate came together to make sure ideological extremism didn’t derail or hijack the bill.

The House process? Not so much. The House bill reflects virtually no Democratic priorities, and focuses mostly on building out fossil fuel infrastructure.

Rather than reaching bipartisan agreement over the framework of a bill, like they did in the Senate, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved forward with his own “5 Pillars” as part of his energy policy vision called “Architecture of Abundance”. There was a half-hearted attempt at bipartisanship when a watered down “committee print” (the first iteration of the bill) was unanimously voted out of subcommittee.

The committee print did nothing for clean energy, and by the time the bill came to a vote in the full committee, the few moderate bipartisan provisions were stripped and replaced by controversial Republican priorities. They couldn’t even come together to get a modest provision for low income workforce development done (one of the Democrats’ few conditions for bipartisan cooperation).

A bad bill made worse, the House energy bill was voted out of both the committee and full chamber virtually along party lines.

The House bill includes controversial provisions that would alter the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) in a way that disadvantages renewables and distributed generation, while favoring fossil fuel energy and base-load power. There are also provisions that undermine the EPA’s carbon reduction standards under the Clean Power Plan. There are even provisions that incentivize increased energy consumption and undermine energy efficiency standards and incentives in buildings and appliances.

The good in the Senate bill

So where is the clean energy in the Senate energy bill? You have to look hard for it, but there’s some good stuff in there:

On clean energy innovation, the Senate bill authorizes increased funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and DOE’s Office of Science –roughly $1 billion more by 2020 for each program. The bill also authorizes increased funding for America Competes – a 4 percent increase each year for basic energy research with goal of doubling the current $5 billion funding level.

On modernizing grid infrastructure, the Senate bill creates a “Grid Storage Program” that will help provide utilities and consumers with confidence in capacity, reliability, and safety of new batteries, and will encourage more renewables integration into the grid.

The bill also bolsters support for micro-grids which will help support clean energy infrastructure in rural communities and expand the market for this clean energy infrastructure. And it commissions analysis that will help clarify the benefits renewable energy provides to the grid.

The bill helps blunt utility opposition to rooftop solar by instructing the Department of Energy to issue guidance, and conduct a study on what constitutes a net metering economic analysis; providing rooftop solar advocates with a tool to fight unfair utility litigation in the states.

Photo: Wayne National Forest

Photo: Wayne National Forest

The bill includes provisions that help address shortfalls in equitable access to energy and water efficiency in middle- and low-income communities; that will help lower utility bills for consumers who need that relief the most. And it bolsters energy efficiency by including the key provisions of the Portman-Shaheen energy efficiency bill.

We don’t have time to wait for the politics to change

Are the bigger ticket clean energy policies missing from the Energy Policy and Modernization Act? Absolutely! Does the bill do enough for clean energy? Not even close. But does the bill make incremental progress on some of our clean energy infrastructure, clean energy R&D, and energy efficiency priorities, without any real poison pill provisions? Yes.

From a climate standpoint, though, do we have the luxury of waiting for politics to change, as opposed to making modest progress in a tough political environment? No.

One plus negative one equals zero; fix that math

The Senate and House bills are not really companion bills. They are very different bills and they were developed and legislated in very different ways.

Senate Democrats are to be commended for knowing where that hard bright line is between working constructively to make incremental progress and when to walk away from bad policy. And Senate Republicans are to be commended for not overreaching and wasting everyone’s time pretending a bad bill could get 60 votes or the president’s signature.

The Senate bill is a “purple” bill, reflecting priorities for both parties (red and blue). But this bill cannot survive any measureable weakening from a climate and clean energy standpoint. Keep in mind that the Senate bill virtually ignores the link between climate and energy—indeed a pretty sad commentary on congressional energy politics. And the climate-friendly policies on efficiency, grid modernization and clean tech innovation are modest.

The House has spent the last five years passing bills that the president can’t sign. This year the Senate has done the tough work of advancing Republican energy legislation with Democratic support. These efforts need to be encouraged and rewarded if they are to continue.

And that process starts with making sure that the Senate bill is not weakened in conference committee (where the two versions get reconciled). Any weakening of the Senate bill sets a dangerous precedent by rewarding dysfunction and divisive partisanship on the House side.

The Senate should stand firm, and ensure that what gets to the president’s desk is a good bill, and better than no bill at all.