Senate energy bill powered by compromise

The timing is coincidental but no less appropriate: During National Parks Week and a couple of days before today’s observance of Earth Day, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive energy bill that accomplishes more than any previous energy legislation in nearly a decade.

The measure, which passed the Senate, 85-12, has been in the works for more than a year and was authored and pursued in bipartisan fashion by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Washington state’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s ranking Democrat. Negotiators with the House and Senate will now work out a compromise with a similar bill passed last year in the House.

The legislation attempts to address a rapidly changing energy landscape amid debates over climate change and the impacts of energy use on the environment and public health, fossil fuels vs. renewable energy, technological advances, and concerns for the cybersecurity and stability of the nation’s energy grid.

It might have, as similar efforts had in the past, been bottled up by disagreements over those debates. Admittedly, senators sidestepped some of those battles. Instead, the legislation looked to find where agreements could be reached. That doesn’t mean the results are insignificant.

Among its provisions, the Energy Policy Modernization Act would:

Support research and development of clean energy technologies, building on the increasing successes of wind and solar, and invest $700 million in the next four years for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which has fostered a number of advancements in renewable energy as outlined earlier this month by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius;

Modernize the nation’s energy grid and promote its stability and resilience against cybersecurity threats; and triple the investments in energy storage technology, such as the Modular Storage Energy Architecture projects being developed at the Snohomish County Public Utility District; and

Launch a smart buildings initiative, a public-private partnership to develop and demonstrate energy-efficient technologies for new construction and existing buildings, which currently use more than 40 percent of the energy produced in the nation.

Beyond the contributions such advances will make to limit greenhouse gases, the legislation also includes other benefits for the environment:

The bill will permanently reauthorize the Historic Preservation Fund and its National Parks Maintenance and Revitalization Fund, addressing a long list of deferred maintenance needs at the nation’s national parks as the National Parks Service marks its centennial.

The legislation would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, ending the possibility of a repeat of last year when the program expired for several months when partisan politics threatened a program created by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson 50 years ago. The program uses royalties from off-shore oil leases to provide financial support and matching grants for national and state public lands acquisitions and development of parks and recreation programs. During its first 50 years the program has funded $637 million in projects in Washington state alone.

Some will criticize other provisions, including an acceleration of permits to build natural gas terminals on the coast to allow for exports.

That’s the nature of compromise in an era of divided government; neither side gets everything it wanted. Where the choice was between compromise or stagnation that offered no benefit at all, senators wisely chose to settle where there was agreement.

The larger issues, particularly significant steps to confront climate change, remain. But maybe the smaller deals that have been struck can ease the path for broader agreements.

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