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Senate Passes Bipartisan Energy Bill

Last Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, a sweeping energy bill and its first attempt to revise American energy law since 2007. The bill is notable not only for its broad bipartisan backing – it passed by a vote of 85-12 – but also for including major support for energy efficiency initiatives.

For the first time since the presidency of George W. Bush, Senate Republicans and Democrats have come together on energy issues. By avoiding the major points of controversy between the two parties, the bill’s sponsors overcame the rancorous partisan debate that derailed earlier attempts to update the country’s energy policy. The new bill makes little mention of hot-button topics like climate change and oil and gas exploration, allowing senators to rally behind broad but modest measures addressing building and vehicle efficiency, renewable energy supply, and improvements to grid infrastructure. Offering policy measures to both parties – accelerating exports of natural gas for Republicans, permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund for Democrats – won support from all sides.

“After months of working together, the bipartisan legislation we introduced today marks a critical step toward the modernization of our federal energy policies,” explained Lisa Murkowski, one of the bills co-sponsors. “Most people thought we couldn’t achieve anything,” she told the New York Times, “but we have demonstrated that we can legislate — and we can even legislate, oh my gosh, in an election year.” Co-sponsor Maria Cantwell lauded the bill for addressing energy security “with a new twist,” praising the legislation’s attention to efficiency, cybersecurity, energy transmission, distribution and storage while also preserving opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act proposes extensive support for new and existing energy efficiency initiatives. It mandates more efficient buildings, calling on executive officials to update building codes. It authorizes grant funding for energy efficiency retrofits to buildings housing nonprofit organizations and low-income families. The act also extends rebate programs that incentivize upgrades to inefficient appliances. This emphasis has won widespread approval from the energy efficiency community. “We applaud the tenacity and commitment” of Murkowski and Cantwell “who have persevered to deliver a bill that includes strong energy efficiency policies that will help to grow our economy,” remarked Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan after the bill’s passage. According to Callahan, the bill’s promise to reduce energy bills and protect both the environment and American energy security make it “an important victory for all Americans.”

While the proposed changes have won bipartisan support in and out of Congress, there are still major hurdles to clear before it becomes law. First, the Senate needs to reconcile differences between this bill and a narrower bill passed by the House of Representatives last year. Then the legislators will have to win support from the president. The White House has indicated that President Obama “supports some provisions of the legislation” but also takes issue with some elements of the bill. He likely shares the expressed by environmentalists who argue that the act offers too much to the oil and gas industry and does too little to address climate change. As Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce explained, “at the end of the day, the balance of this bill favors the dirty and dangerous fossil fuels of the past at a time when we need to move full speed ahead towards an economy powered by clean, renewable energy.”

Overall, the Energy Policy Modernization Act is a step in the right direction toward modernizing American energy policy. It represents a major boon for energy efficiency at a time when efficiency is one of the fastest growing and most cost effective means to mitigate climate change and promote economic growth. The legislation does not go far enough to address climate change, offering too much support to fossil fuel producers and not enough to emissions reductions, but given the obstinacy of Senate Republicans on climate issues, it remains a noteworthy accomplishment.

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