Coronavirus Outbreak Creates New Opening for Major Energy Legislation

Last month a promising bipartisan energy bill, the American Energy Innovation Act, stalled in the Senate in a stalemate over disagreements about which amendments to allow votes on. The legislation, introduced in February after a year of hearings, business meetings, and bipartisan negotiations, contained the priorities of 70 senators and had the potential to be the most comprehensive change to U.S. energy law in more than a decade. 

After having bogged down in amendment gridlock, conventional political wisdom would consider this energy bill effectively dead in the water, given that 2020 is a presidential election year and Congress’ August recess therefore represents the de facto deadline for any meaningful legislation. Throw the outbreak of the novel coronavirus into the mix, with its stifling effect on the political calendar, and the bipartisan bill would appear to be even more of a longshot. 

Some industry and advocacy groups, however, see a new opening for the American Energy Innovation Act to make its way through Congress precisely because of the impact of the novel coronavirus. Both Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have signaled interest in a fourth coronavirus relief package that could come in the form of a longer-term stimulus with a massive infrastructure focus. Such a bill would likely have energy as a vital component.

“There’s new life for this energy bill during this crisis,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser for the Progressive Policy Institute and a climate adviser in the Clinton White House. “This crisis is going to be a test of the ability of the parties to put the economic priorities of the moment ahead of disagreements on climate.”

Indeed, Congress will want to prioritize speed and consensus when putting together any relief package, and the Senate’s bill offers both. The measure was spearheaded by two moderate lawmakers from opposite parties: Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and top committee Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. 

The bill has also already been extensively vetted in the legislative process, a fact highlighted by Heather Reams, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative clean energy and climate group. Reams said her group will push for the bill to be included in a longer-term stimulus package.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here where we do agree. Why don’t we start there?” Reams said. “The Senate energy bill is not a bad place to start for emissions reductions.”

With a focus on reducing emissions, the legislation includes spending on more than a dozen tangible programs such as carbon capture, advanced nuclear, and energy storage that would provide jobs for Americans. 

“These are steel and pipes-in-the-ground projects that would put people to work and also help prove out really important technologies that we’re going to need to decarbonize,” said Brad Townsend, managing director for strategic initiatives at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. He also pointed out that the bill would be less of a lift for the House because either the House Science Committee or House Energy and Commerce Committee have already approved more than 20 of the bills featured in the Senate’s package.

Most important of all, the bill remains a priority for Senate leadership. Grace Jang, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee majority, told the Washington Examiner last month that Murkowski and Manchin, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., still want to see the bill passed in some form. 

“It has also been more than 12 years since we updated our nation’s energy laws, so Sen. Murkowski looks forward to passing this common-sense legislation,” Jang said.

Given the pandemic, however, Jang said she could not lay out a specific timeline for the bill.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit:  Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

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