My Turn: Is Murkowski's energy bill a monumental contribution?

At the end of 2015, Sen. Lisa Murkowski moved the first major energy bill since 2007 out of committee and onto the Senate floor by a rare bipartisan margin of 18–4.

 

The Energy Policy Modernization Act (EPMA) of 2015 was crafted and co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., another display of the bipartisan spirit that is “missing in action” in today’s Congress. Given the deep divides and the profoundly dysfunctional nature of our Congress, Sen. Murkowski’s energy bill can be viewed as a monumental achievement. She used her chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee in a refreshingly bipartisan manner.

Sen. Murkowski also used her senior position to include some provisions that will specifically benefit Alaska. For example, the act requires the Secretary of Energy to makes a decision on any LNG export application within 45 days after completion of an environmental review. The act would also reauthorize federal research into geothermal energy. According to the Senator’s press announcement, this could benefit up to one-fourth of Alaska’s communities.

In order to get the EPMA onto the Senate floor, Murkowski and Cantwell looked for energy issues like climate change and offshore oil drilling revenues that would sidestep legislative land mines. The bill instead focused on modernizing power grids, increasing fossil fuel production, mining permits, energy efficiency and boosting infrastructure development for hydropower and microgrid technology. While some of these provisions are good, particularly the push on hydropower, what’s missing from this bill are provisions that would accelerate an overall rapid transition to clean, renewable energy.

There are no renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standards for utilities, no job training for the wind and solar workforce, and no provisions for promoting electric vehicle technology. Furthermore, the bill does not attempt to phase out fossil fuel subsidies for coal and some of the larger producers of oil and gas.

Instead the bill includes more than half a billion dollars per year to build a coal project that bills itself as “clean.” According to the League of Conservation Voters, the bill also interferes with efforts to build and retrofit federal buildings to be fossil fuel free, like the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau. When one looks at what is missing from this bipartisan effort, Sen. Murkowski’s bill falls well short of monumental.

Sen. Cantwell said this bill was “the first step in the long but important journey” to work on significant energy legislation. In other words, it’s an important step but it does not significantly move the needle away from fossil fuel dependence and toward a rapid transition to renewables. Instead the Energy Policy and Modernization Act of 2015 maintains a “business as usual” trajectory for the fossil fuel industry.

To consider what a forward thinking energy policy would look like, all one need do is look to countries like Denmark and Germany. Denmark aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050. Without hurting the economy. According to the Worldwatch Institute, Germany intends to have at least 45 percent of their energy needs being met from renewable energy sources by 2030. In contrast, the U.S. is keeping fossil fuel subsidies in place and has numerous leaders in Congress who refuse to admit that climate change is a serious threat caused by human activity.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a member of the Energy & Resources Committee, proposed the following amendment to EPMA: “It is the Sense of Congress that climate change is real, caused by human activity, there isn’t much time to reverse it, and the consequences of inaction are dire.”

The amendment failed, with all 12 Republicans in the majority voting “no.” This of course includes Sen. Murkowski, who represents a state known to be on the frontline of climate change. I learned about Sen. Murkowski’s inability to admit to this fundamental understanding of climate change prior to reading her Jan. 14 column published in the New York Times, “Stop Wasting America’s Hydropower Potential.”

Now knowing her position on not accepting the seriousness of climate change, I was most surprised to read her opening line where she plays the climate change card in appealing to President Obama to consider hydropower has a way to address “one of the biggest challenges facing our country”. Apparently, Sen. Murkowski’s belief in the seriousness of climate change is interchangeable to the fuel or energy source she chooses to promote.

By the end of reading her op-ed, I strongly agreed with what she had to say about harnessing more of the potential of hydropower. We in Southeast Alaska are good example of harnessing hydropower with a minimal environmental footprint. She’s right when she talks about the values of coordinated environmental reviews and how that can expedite permitting. She’s right about upgrading and modernizing turbines at existing hydropower facilities.

Then she writes, “With hydropower, Congress has given the president an opportunity to address climate change and ‘bridge the divide’ between parties. If he’s serious about expanding the use of clean, renewable energy, he should at last give hydropower the attention it deserves in his final year.”

Again she’s right. But imagine how much more sincere her appeal would be if there was a climate change “Sense of Congress” to go along with it. As I learned after spending endless hours of playing 500 Rummy with my mother, “a card laid is a card played”.

• Kate Troll is a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member. The views expressed are her own.

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