Conference Committee Begins Tackling Energy Reform Bill

Originally published by: Alaska Dispatch NewsSeptember 9, 2016

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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski struck the gavel Thursday morning to start a House-Senate conference committee she hopes will result in the first major federal energy legislation in nearly a decade.

FILE —  Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, leads a hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, Jan. 8, 2015, alongside Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. (Jabin Botsford/The New York Times)Murkowski, a Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged her colleagues to negotiate with a particular goal in mind: a bipartisan bill devoid of provisions that would earn a veto from the president.

The conference committee joins selected House and Senate lawmakers to reconcile two energy bills passed by the respective legislative bodies.

Murkowski urged colleagues to proceed in the same open, transparent and bipartisan manner that allowed the Senate to pass a bill she crafted with the committee's top Democrat, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell. It passed the Senate by a vote of 85-12 in April.

House members noted at the opening meeting that the House's process, and the resulting bill with provisions that drew presidential veto threats, rankled Democrats who called the process deeply partisan.

But there was agreement Thursday among the members that they have a chance to pass legislation modernizing the nation's energy system, updating infrastructure and the way the nation funds wildfire and drought response, and protecting against attacks on power grids many lawmakers fear are extremely vulnerable. But disagreements remain about how best to manage that.

"We do want to work together," said Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I think there is a sweet spot." He urged colleagues to keep the focus on "not sending a bill to the president that he would veto."

While the Senate bill is generally focused on national programs, Murkowski added several Alaska-specific provisions with amendments on the Senate floor. The bill would broaden the right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline through Denali National Park, authorize expansion of the Terror Lake hydroelectric project in Kodiak and give the Southeast Alaska Power Association another decade to consider adding hydropower in Ketchikan.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican appointed to the conference committee, urged the group to keep provisions he backed in the House version of the bill, halting federal hunting regulations in Alaska, encouraging Native energy production and hydroelectric power, and allowing several dozen American hunters, including two Alaskans, to bring home polar bear trophies legally taken outside the U.S.

And Young warned the committee he is opposed to building-specific energy efficiency provisions. "We don't need the federal government telling us how to do it," Young said.