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Murkowski eyes Senate action on broad energy bill in early 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

MUST PUT RIGHT INCENTIVES IN PLACE

Murkowski insisted that it was lawmakers' job "to make sure that the rightincentives are put in place" to spur on innovation in the energy space.Congress, she said, must ensure "that we're not making that innovation moredifficult 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 thatwe were saying, 'We are this close to finally being able to seal the deal.'"

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

But Murkowski said her commitment to get the legislation signed into law hasnot faltered. She and the Senate energy panel's top Democrat, Senator MariaCantwell of Washington, reintroduced their version of the legislation in Juneand the bill is awaiting action on the Senate floor.

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

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

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

'DIFFICULT PERIOD' FOR BIPARTISAN RELATIONS

Spencer Gray, a staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committeeminority, 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 bipartisanrelations, Gray said. "I don't think that's affected members', including myboss', commitment to solving the problems that our energy bill identified, butwe 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 dealwould have to include a combination of permitting reforms and federal fundingto get things built. The administration's position earlier in the year,however, offered "a pretty dramatic, in our view, decrease in their commitmentto federal funds going out the door."

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

Gray pointed to conservative lawmakers' insistence on offsetting disasterassistance and pushback in the omnibus spending debate as early evidence of atightening of the purse strings.

"So I don't know if that leaves us at some point next year with the fundingside of infrastructure dropping off and you're just left with permittingreform, 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