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Murkowski eyes Senate action on broad energy bill in early 2018

Washington (Platts)--6 Dec 2017 546 pm EST/2246 GMT


With details of President Donald Trump's infrastructure plan remaining scant, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee suggested Wednesday that a broad energy bill would jump-start it.

Lisa Murkowski, Republican-Alaska, said she too had questions about what the $1 trillion infrastructure package touted by Trump would look like, and encouraged the administration to take a look at the Senate's bipartisan energy bill for a package "that is ready to go and that's already pre-vetted."

That bill would streamline permitting for natural gas and hydro power projects, facilitate LNG exports, support the modernization of the electric grid, increase buildings' efficiency and aid development of next generation renewables and advanced nuclear, she said in a keynote address at the GridConnext conference held by Clean Edge and the GridWise Alliance. "So it's a pretty substantive piece when you think about infrastructure as a whole."

Murkowski said she has discussed with Senate and House leadership moving forward at the start of 2018 on a second attempt to usher in a comprehensive energy policy bill.

"When you think about where we are on the Hill right now, it's not exactly a very happy Christmas spirit," she quipped. "We'll get through this year, but I feel very strongly that one of the best things we can do to kick off the new year in 2018 is to try to do something together."

Murkowski contended that the American people need "to see that we're going to be able to work in partnership, and I think energy can be that piece of partnership."

MUST PUT RIGHT INCENTIVES IN PLACE

Murkowski insisted that it was lawmakers' job "to make sure that the right incentives are put in place" to spur on innovation in the energy space. Congress, she said, must ensure "that we're not making that innovation more difficult or more complicated or less secure and less reliable."

"It's been a full year now since we were really aggressively talking about [the energy bill]," she noted. "In fact, it was just this time last year that we were saying, 'We are this close to finally being able to seal the deal.'"

House and Senate negotiators, however, failed to reach a compromise in conference, scuttling the legislation. Murkowski, at the time, blamed House Republicans emboldened by Trump's election win, asserting an unwillingness on their part to resolve final issues.

But Murkowski said her commitment to get the legislation signed into law has not faltered. She and the Senate energy panel's top Democrat, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, reintroduced their version of the legislation in June and the bill is awaiting action on the Senate floor.

Speaking to aspects of the bill she said would be of particular interest to GridConnext attendees, Murkowski said the legislation would establish a steering committee to guide the Department of Energy's efforts to promote the modernization of the electric grid through public-private partnerships.

It would also fund DOE's Office of Science and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy "at levels that put us back on track to double funding for energy research and development," she said.

"Investing in fundamental research has really allowed our country to lead the world in energy breakthroughs, and it's just so critical that we maintain that level of excellence," Murkowski continued. "We likewise recognize that good science done by DOE just shouldn't be sitting on a shelf. We need to encourage that technology transfer to the private sector."

'DIFFICULT PERIOD' FOR BIPARTISAN RELATIONS

Spencer Gray, a staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee minority, acknowledged that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, could bring up the energy bill at any time.

But the Senate is going through a "difficult period" in terms of bipartisan relations, Gray said. "I don't think that's affected members', including my boss', commitment to solving the problems that our energy bill identified, but we are in sort of a low ebb in good bipartisan relations right now," he said, casting some doubt on whether a policy could move in this political climate.

As for an infrastructure package, Gray said he believed any congressional deal would have to include a combination of permitting reforms and federal funding to get things built. The administration's position earlier in the year, however, offered "a pretty dramatic, in our view, decrease in their commitment to federal funds going out the door."

He added that he was "a little skeptical that we will suddenly shift as a body from passing a potentially huge increase in the debt through this tax reconciliation bill and then turn around and spend a bunch of federal funds on infrastructure. That just seems like too fast a pivot to me."

Gray pointed to conservative lawmakers' insistence on offsetting disaster assistance and pushback in the omnibus spending debate as early evidence of a tightening of the purse strings.

"So I don't know if that leaves us at some point next year with the funding side of infrastructure dropping off and you're just left with permitting reform, in which case it may be hard to attract enough Democrats," Gray said.

--Jasmin Melvin, jasmin.melvin@spglobal.com --Edited by Richard Rubin, richard.rubin@spglobal.com




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