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Murkowski's energy bill passes Senate after months of delays

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski scored a big win Wednesday when the Senate passed her energy bill -- the first in nearly a decade -- loaded with provisions to bolster renewable energy, clear the way for natural gas out of Alaska and even rename some federal land for a former Alaska governor.

Last year Murkowski set up camp on the centerline, pledging to craft a bipartisan energy bill as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with help from the committee's ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Now she will have to convince the House to join her in the middle.

Murkowski's bill was on track to move through the deeply-divided Senate until fights over funding for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and amendments related to offshore drilling derailed the process for months.

Finally emerging from that legislative hiccup, the bill passed 85-12.

Murkowski held court on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, monitoring "aye" votes from such diverse characters as Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She shook hands, high-fived Cantwell, got a fist bump from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and loitered near the vote sheet, where she had placed a bright blue bumper sticker declaring, "Energy is GOOD."

The bill includes a smattering of widely palatable energy provisions, designed to extend across the aisle, supporting renewable energy, including hydropower, weatherizing homes and speeding the permitting process for liquefied natural gas exports.

Murkowski and Cantwell tacked on additional Alaska-focused provisions in a package of amendments passed Tuesday, broadening the the right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline through Denali National Park, authorizing expansion of the Terror Lake hydroelectric project in Kodiak and giving the Southeast Alaska Power Association another decade to consider adding hydropower in Ketchikan.

The amendments also named 2.6 million acres within the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve after Alaska's fourth governor, Jay Hammond.

An amendment offered by Sen. Dan Sullivan, which passed, gives the Swan Lake hydro project, 22 miles north of Ketchikan, an additional 25.8 acres of land conveyances.

Next steps

Murkowski's legacy effort isn't over. She has to convince the House to head to conference, and likely jettison some more partisan House-passed measures that drew a White House veto threat last year.

One likely sticking point for the House is a provision in the Senate bill reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that spends federal dollars from offshore oil revenues to buy up conservation lands.

But Murkowski was optimistic, calling that disagreement "resolvable."

Her main obstacle, Murkowski said, is "time and the calendar," as the House and Senate have to be in Washington, D.C., at the same time to go to conference on the bill. "We've got our work cut out for us," Murkowski said.

The Senate will lead a conference of the two chambers, because the House took the lead the last time there was a conference on an energy bill -- in 2005.

"Sen. Murkowski is a legislator. That's what's working in this process," Cantwell said of Murkowski's ability to get the bill to a bicameral compromise.

The Democrat lodged heavy praise for her energy committee counterpart. Citing a line often said by longtime (and long-ago) Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., Cantwell said after the bill passed, "There are workhorses and there are show horses, and Lisa Murkowski is a workhorse."

The line was a reminder of laughs Murkowski drew on the Senate floor Tuesday, when she neighed like a horse during a voice vote over an amendment aimed at expanding genetic diversity in North Carolina's wild horses.

Sullivan also praised Murkowski's persistence.

"In February, the energy bill hit up against seemingly insurmountable gridlock. But Sen. Murkowski did not give up," Sullivan said Wednesday. "She did the hard work, meeting with stakeholders and convincing our colleagues about the enormous benefits at stake," Sullivan said.

Murkowski noted that bipartisan efforts helped move the bill, saying 80 senators have "some level of ownership" over the bill's contents.

"This is how the Senate is supposed to work," Murkowski said.

A broad bill

The Senate bill includes provisions to:

  • Streamline the permitting process for oil and gas pipelines by allowing easier data gathering
  • Give the Department of Energy 45 days to make a decision on permit applications for exporting liquefied natural gas, once the environmental review is completed
  • Allow states to use some federal grant money to fund public shooting ranges, and to authorize new spending on wetlands conservation
  • Amend the definition of “renewable energy” to include geothermal heat pump technology
  • Add fuel economy incentives for natural gas vehicles
  • Reauthorize a program aimed at reducing diesel pollution, largely through providing grants and loan guarantees to states to swap out engines on public buses, trucks and other engines
  • Hold off on selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until prices are high enough to warrant a decent financial return
  • The bill drew mixed reviews from environmental groups, despite broad Democratic support.

    "The Senate has missed a chance to make progress on energy policy, passing a bill that has gotten worse over time. The positive steps the bill would encourage are far outweighed by provisions that would delay movement to a clean energy economy and undermine action on climate change," said Marc Boom, associate director of Government Affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    In a recent letter to lawmakers, 10 environmental groups raised objections to amendments that would mark forest bioenergy as carbon neutral, delay Energy Department review of gas furnace standards and expedite review of new mining permits.

    Heritage Action -- a conservative lobby group -- urged "no" votes in opposition to home energy efficiency provisions that would provide credits against home loans, among other issues.

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