Murkowski, Manchin release long-awaited energy legislation, vote expected soon

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski addresses the Alaska Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia’s U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the top legislators on the Senate energy committee, unveiled a sweeping measure to overhaul the country’s energy policy with an eye toward renewables, greater efficiencies and nuclear power, which could be of particular interest to Alaska.

The 550-page bill, called the American Energy Innovation Act, pulls together more than 50 different energy-related bills that have passed through the committee. The measure, according to a report by The Hill, is expected to arrive on the Senate floor as early as next week.

“We’re seeking to modernize our energy laws,” Murkowski told the Alaska Legislature during her address last week. “This is something we haven’t done in an even dozen years—12 long years it’s been—so this is probably the single best step that we can take in this Congress to keep energy affordable, strengthen our long-term energy security and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

The legislation promotes research and investment in emerging energy technologies like geothermal and wave along with existing hydroelectric, wind and solar energies. It calls for better efficiency in everything from homes, industrial buildings and vehicles but stops short of enacting tighter standards.

The legislation also has sections that deal with mining and natural gas, which has garnered immediate opposition from some environmental groups. One section seeks to build up the country’s strategic reserves of critical minerals, another deals with programs to increase the efficiencies in coal and natural gas technologies.

Another sets up several programs dealing with nuclear power, and it might be coming to Alaska.

When speaking to the Legislature, Murkowski gave a short preview of the American Energy Innovation Act, specifically highlighting new developments in nuclear energy that could make it work for Alaska.

“One of the key technologies, especially for Alaska and I mentioned this last year, is nuclear energy. I know when I mentioned it, I got a few raised eyebrows. I want to speak again about my interest in it. I’m not talking about large reactors that would power a major city, but I’m talking about innovative technologies that can be scaled to fit our needs,” she said. “Think about the range of possibilities: You can power smaller villages, military bases, resource development projects safely and affordably with no emissions and no need to refuel for years at a time.”

In the Alaska Legislature, the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee has sponsored Senate Bill 196, which would add “advanced nuclear reactor” to the state laws relating to nuclear power. Under the bill’s text, such a reactor would be a small-scale, portable reactor that has caught on in recent years as a potential solution for Alaska’s power issues, particularly because it would reduce the need ship nearly as much fuel to communities.

Gwen Holdmann, the director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Alaska Public Media in 2018 there’s still several logistical hurdles to get over, like what to do with the used fuel, before nuclear could become a viable solution in Alaska. One of the biggest, though, is that there aren’t yet any such reactors out there.

“They really are not prime time. They’re not ready. They’re not available. They’re not off-the-shelf,” said told the station.

The federal legislation specifically calls for the government to fund a demonstration project of four to seven of these advanced reactors along with required test facilities, putting billions of dollars into the effort. Alaska currently has no operating nuclear reactors.

Climate change and general reaction (updated to include EDF’s response)

The legislation is not directly intended to deal with climate change, one committee aide said as was reported by S&P Global though the hope is to ultimately reduce emissions through better efficiencies.

“The provisions in this bill are very important for climate, but we are not claiming that it is in any way sufficient” as climate legislation, he said. “We consider this as a down payment on climate, and it’s just focused on energy innovation.”

The legislation is getting criticism from some environmental groups, who say it doesn’t go far enough to address climate change.

“At a time when we need to rapidly transition away from dirty fossil fuels to 100% clean energy, this bill points us in the wrong direction,” said Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce.

But not all environmental groups panned the legislation.

The Environmental Defense Fund, another long-standing environmental group, was more positive about the American Energy Innovation Act, noting that it did take meaningful and realistic steps toward addressing climate change (It is Congress after all).

“At a time of increasing polarization in Washington, bipartisan leadership on climate is all the more crucial, and we applaud the senators for their initiative on this effort to support clean energy innovation,” said Elizabeth Gore, the group’s head of Political Affairs, in a prepared statement.

She noted there was also room for improvement, particularly when it comes to strengthening the focus on renewables as they’d be more near-term than untested solutions like the small-scale nuclear reactors or carbon capture technologies.

“We look forward to working with them as the bill moves forward,” she said, “to improve the bill by giving more weight to renewables, energy efficiency and sustainable transportation technologies like electric vehicles. We think these changes would make the bill even stronger.”

The bill also received support from the conservative Citizens for Responsible Energy, according to a report by Reuters. The organization’s executive director told Reuters the measure “demonstrated that there is common ground that can be achieved in making clean energy investment a priority in combating environmental challenges.”

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