Murkowski’s big energy bill passes Senate

The U.S. Senate has approved a sweeping energy reform bill that was the biggest effort of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the current Congress.

The 85-12 vote sends the bill into a conference committee with the House, which has passed a similar measure with no Democratic support. Murkowski’s bill garnered bipartisan support – the only ‘no’ votes came from Republicans.

While broad – it touches on almost every sector of America’s energy economy, from biomass to hydrokinetic turbines driven by river currents – it isn’t particularly deep in any spot. It doesn’t call for big policy changes, just changes necessary to support America’s transformation from an energy importer to an energy exporter, courtesy of the shale oil and gas boom.

The bill’s message is simple, Murkowski said by phone Wednesday from Washington, D.C.

“It’s here on one bumper sticker: Energy is good,” she said. “That’s been my guiding light throughout this process.”

While the measure had widespread support in Congress, it was almost derailed by the lead-water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Democrats in the Senate demanded that $600 million be inserted into the bill to address the issue of lead in drinking water, and that was enough to stymie its progress for months.

“Ultimately, it was just not working as part of the energy bill,” Murkowski said.

She said she agreed to support the senators from Michigan on a separate piece of legislation, and “they agreed to stand down and try to find another vehicle that was a more appropriate vehicle.”

For Alaska, the bill contains several key components. It allows the long-planned trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline to be routed through Denali National Park. A previous corridor approved by Congress didn’t work because of a geological fault line.

The bill speeds up the permitting process for liquefied natural gas terminals (there’s one planned in Nikiski for the trans-Alaska pipeline) and for hydroelectric power plants, including the experimental in-river turbines planned by some Interior towns and villages.

“If you can’t get the permit to put the turbine into the water, you’re dead in the water, as they say,” Murkowski said.

The bill allows more time for the permitting of Mahoney Lake, a hydroelectric project near Ketchikan, and corrects a survey error necessary for Ketchikan’s Swan Lake hydroelectric project.

In Kodiak, the Kodiak Electric Association’s Terror Lake hydro project will be permitted to expand, allowing that city to stay on 100 percent wind and hydro power for the foreseeable future.

Amendments inserted within the bill also affect things unrelated to energy.

A Murkowski amendment to the bill states that the federal government shall “consider hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting opportunities as part of all Federal plans for land, resource, and travel management.”

Murkowski said that wording, among other clauses within the bill, means the federal government must treat its land as open by default to hunting, fishing and recreation. Federal agencies can still choose to close land to those activities, but by default, “these items are to be open unless specifically closed,” Murkowski said.

Also included within the bill is a “critical mineral” section that would encourage mining projects that pursue rare earth and other elements needed for electronics. The United States imports most of these minerals, and the bill contains sections that encourage the United States to survey and develop its own sources for them.

This could encourage development of the large graphite mine near Nome (graphite is critical for lithium batteries) and the Bokan and Niblack mines on Prince of Wales Island.

Portions of the bill were opposed by environmental groups who dislike that it labels biomass energy (generally, wood-burning) as carbon-neutral and eases the export of fossil fuels. Environmentalists did praise the bill’s requirements for energy efficiency (home weatherization programs were renewed) and the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which protects and maintains national parks and wilderness areas.

The White House issued a statement Jan. 27 saying the president “supports some provisions of the legislation” but “has concerns” about others.

If the resulting compromise legislation passes the House and Senate and is signed by the president, it would be the first significant energy bill to leave Congress since 2007.

“It’s well overdue,” Murkowski said. “Let’s modernize our energy policy.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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