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Big energy bill, confirmation of FERC nominee not likely until 2020

With a little over a week left until Congress adjourns for 2019, the U.S. Senate will likely defer major planned action on energy until 2020.

That action includes voting on confirmation of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nominee James Danly and introducing broad energy legislation that contains proposals that the Senate Committee on Energy and Commerce approved in 2019.

SNL Image

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Source: AP Photo

On Dec. 12, the committee held its final business meeting of 2019. The markup included favorable votes on a handful of energy bills, including S. 2660, or the Wind Energy Research and Development Act of 2019, which would establish a grant program for wind energy research, development and demonstration. Another bill, the Renew America's Schools Act of 2019, or S. 1890, would provide grants for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at public schools.

"After this markup, the window is essentially closed on base additions to our energy package," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said at the hearing. "Not everything, of course, that we've reported [in 2019] will be included, but we'll now turn to negotiating it so that we can be ready to bring it to the floor hopefully very early next year."

In 2019, the committee advanced 52 energy-related bills and 25 lands measures. Those energy bills include S. 903, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, or NELA, which directs the U.S. Department of Energy to set research and development goals for advanced reactors and would require the federal government to enter into at least one power purchase agreement with an advanced nuclear plant by 2023.

The committee has also favorably reported legislation to expedite approval of small-volume LNG exports, support research and the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology, bolster the development of grid-scale energy storage, provide incentives to expand the use of advanced cybersecurity tools by power generators, and reauthorize the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E.

"We've got the makings of a great energy innovation package that is a key step in addressing the climate challenge, and I look forward to seeing it across the finish line with everybody here," Ranking Member Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said.

Manchin told reporters that he and Murkowski could move the energy and lands bills jointly or as two separate packages. "It might be a good enough package to put them all together," he said. "We'll look at it and see what the will is."

The Senate in 2016 passed a sweeping energy and natural resources bill. But the legislation stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives, in part over differences on resource provisions.

FERC pick confirmation still pending

Another priority that will likely wait until 2020 is a vote on Danly's confirmation. The Senate energy committee favorably reported his nomination on Nov. 19, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to schedule floor votes on the matter, with Congress consumed by end-of-year spending legislation and other matters.

"We're supposed to be done next Friday [Dec. 20]," Murkowski told reporters. "I don't see that you've got a path forward on many of the nom[inations]" reported out of the Senate energy committee.

Manchin also said he would like the White House to select lawyer Allison Clements to fill an empty seat at FERC left by former commissioner Cheryl LaFleur. Senate Democrats chose Clements as their party's pick for the agency, but the Trump administration did not pair Danly's nomination with Clements, to the frustration of Democrats. With Danly's confirmation likely pushed into 2020, Manchin hopes for a new chance to move Republican and Democratic FERC nominees together.

"I want to find out first the objections [the White House] may have to Clements," he said. "And if they don't have any objections, then why is that one being held up? Because we've always voted in pairs."

Manchin added, however, that he would not hold back Danly's confirmation to wait for a Democrat.