Senate addresses broad bipartisan energy bill with amendments

After several attempts to pass broad energy legislation in the Senate stalled over the past few years, the Senate on April 19 appeared poised to approve the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, which contains numerous provisions to improve energy efficiency and cybersecurity of the power grid, boost infrastructure investment and support energy storage and renewable resources.

As votes on amendments dragged late into the afternoon April 19, Senate leaders decided to schedule a floor vote on the broad bill for the morning of April 20.

The bipartisan work of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in moving the bill through the Senate was praised by senators April 19.

On the Senate floor, Murkowski commented that it has taken both patience and persistence in clearing opposition and crafting a bill (S. 2012) that is gaining support to modernize the nation’s energy policies to match changes in markets and technology developments. The last broad energy policy legislation was passed by Congress in 2007, and it is time to update federal energy policies to improve oil and natural gas permitting processes and reauthorize several research and development programs, Murkowski said.

The bill is a compromise measure that “will drive infrastructure investments” and protect the power grid from cybersecurity threats, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said during debate on the measure.

Cantwell and other lawmakers urged their colleagues to support the bill, given its provisions for boosting hydropower resources, increasing energy efficiency programs for federal buildings and other measures, creating jobs to support renewable energy projects, permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and reducing energy costs to consumers. The measure authorizes natural gas exports from the U.S., which was opposed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., but Franken expressed support for the bill because the overall package is positive, he said, touting the increased use of energy storage to address intermittent renewable resources.

Both Portman and Murkowski noted that the legislation enjoys support from about 250 organizations, some of which often oppose each other on legislative issues, such as the Alliance to Save Energy, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various renewable energy and environmental groups.

Earlier this year, the bill was scheduled to be taken up in the Senate but was derailed by a debate on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said many lawmakers may have thought that the legislation would not pass. Shaheen said that Murkowski and Cantwell rallied support for the measure and she believes there is support in the House of Representatives to take up the package if it is approved by the Senate.

Almost 30 amendments were approved by voice vote April 19, with others addressed in roll call votes.

For the transmission sector, an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., that would have the Secretary of Energy report to Congress on a couple steps before the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) puts to use Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 regarding transmission projects was defeated.  

The amendment, which differed from legislation that the Arkansas congressional delegation sponsored in opposition to federal participation in the Plains & Eastern Clean Line (Plains & Eastern) high-voltage transmission project, called for the DOE Secretary to inform Congress about projects approved under Subsections (a) and (b) of Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act.

As TransmissionHub reported, DOE on March 25 found that the Plains & Eastern project merits participation through the Southwestern Power Administration (Southwestern), and the DOE record of decision designated a preferred route for the 720-mile line designed to deliver up to 4,000 MW of energy from wind projects in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle regions to customers in Arkansas, Tennessee and other states in the South and Southeast.

The participation of Southwestern allowed Plains & Eastern to work around not having utility status in Arkansas through Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act, which prompted Boozman and other Arkansas lawmakers to blast DOE for approving a project over the objection of Arkansas landowners and the lack of state authority in Arkansas.

The amendment directed the Secretary of Energy, before carrying out approval of a project under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act, to submit a report to Congress describing the project’s impact on electricity rates, demonstrating that the project meets the requirements of Section 1222 and including a list of utilities that have entered into contracts for the purchase of power from the project.

The amendment also said that the Secretary of Energy cannot approve a project under Section 1222 before a date that is 90 days after the submission of the report called for in the amendment.

On the Senate floor, Boozman said that the amendment was designed to ensure that DOE provides a simple report to Congress and was not intended to cause delays on transmission projects.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., spoke in opposition of the amendment, saying it would kill the Plains & Eastern project and the job creation that would be supported through construction of the project.

The amendment received 42 votes in support, falling short of the 60 votes needed to be adopted.

Clean Line Energy, the company developing the Plains & Eastern project and similar efforts in other parts of the country, praised the Senate for defeating the Boozman amendment in an April 19 statement. The amendment would have undermined the largest clean energy infrastructure project in the U.S., Clean Line said.

The aim of the energy bill is to modernize the power grid and facilitate infrastructure investment, but the Boozman amendment “would have created unnecessary red tape and delays for the advancement of important interstate energy infrastructure,” the company said. Clean Line pointed to the project’s use of Arkansas companies and manufacturing jobs that would be added in that state and other states to benefit the region.

“This amendment targeted one company, Clean Line Energy, and proposed to change the rules in the middle of the game, after tens of millions of private dollars have been invested,” Clean Line President Michael Skelly said in the statement.

Among the conditions in DOE’s record of decision are that before obtaining land from landowners to build the project, Plains & Eastern must complete key technical studies required by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), Midcontinent ISO (MISO) and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), along with demonstrating “commercial viability” through transmission service agreements with customers. Proof of service agreements totaling at least 3,500 MW will be needed before the participation agreement among DOE and the project developer will become valid, DOE said in its March 25 summary of findings.

This story was updated at 8:40 am EDT April 20 to include the statement from Clean Line Energy.