RBC I The last time the United States updated its energy strategy, the iPhone didn’t exist. George W. Bush was still president. And the energy landscape looked entirely different than it does today: The cost of putting solar panels on your roof was twice as expensive, and the U.S. only produced about 5 million barrels of crude oil a day, compared to around 9.5 million today.
“I want to actually make some changes to our energy policy,” Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski told reporters in May. “We haven’t done that since 2007; it’s way past time.”
It is way past time—as Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva wrote in an opinion piece for High Country News.
The country desperately needs a policy that matches conditions on the ground. But yesterday, 11 major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Rivers, came out against the bipartisan effort that Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., spent months hammering out.
The groups wrote in a letter that while they “appreciate the forward-thinking provisions in the bill,” there are others that “could cause detrimental effects to public health and the environment.” Unless those provisions are addressed, they won’t support the bill.
Yet, the very provisions causing environmental groups consternation are the ones that make the energy overhaul appealing to Republican senators like Steve Daines of Montana or John Barrasso of Wyoming—and give the sprawling, 357-page package a fighting chance.
Murkowski says the package isn’t set in stone: the committee expects significant mark-ups, amendments and discussion in the months to come. And J. Bennett Johnston, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana and energy-policy insider, says that despite its imperfections, the bill still offers the very best opportunity in years to update U.S. energy policy.
“It’s not very controversial,” Johnston says. “It’s not world-shaking. But it’s got a lot of things in it they’ve been trying to pass for a long time, and I think it’s got a decent chance.”
So what might be in store for the West? We dug through 357 pages of political jargon to find out.
The package includes the Shaheen-Portman efficiency bill, an effort that’s languished for years because it got caught in the (unrelated) fight over Keystone XL. But that’s “as non-controversial as you can get in Washington,” write Huffington Post reporters Kate Sheppard and Sabrina Siddiqui.
The bill includes “incentives, opportunities and funding to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings, houses and appliances, but no mandatory standards” and is predicted to “spur the creation of 190,000 jobs, save the country $16.2 billion a year on energy bills by 2030, and reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases.” Yet several provisions, including one that would end the requirement that federal buildings phase out fossil fuels, have drawn the ire of environmentalists.
The package goes a long way toward modernizing the electric grid in the West, in part by studying how public policies like the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard will (or won’t) affect the grid, and in part by improving grid storage, which complements the integration of clean energy. Improved grid storage can benefit the environment in other ways, too, says Allison Clements, a senior attorney with the NRDC. It often eliminates the need to build new generating plants and encourages energy sharing between states.
Yet the NRDC argues that a provision that would speed up the process of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to countries without free trade agreements with the U.S. would offset such gains, tying “our economy to fossil fuels at a time when we should be transitioning away from their use.”
The Western senators who introduced the measure, Barasso and Martin Heinrich, D-NM, counter that LNG is cleaner than other fossil fuel and helps create jobs in states like New Mexico.
Krista Langlois is a contributor for High Country News.