Senate Passes Sweeping Energy Bill, Permanently Reauthorizes LWCF

Tester, Daines praise bill for striking balance between energy development, environmental conservation

By Dillon Tabish
U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, right, and Steve Daines speak about the North Fork Watershed Protection Act alongside Michael Jamison, with the National Parks Conservation Association, on Aug. 24, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In a show of bipartisan collaboration, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping bill that reforms many of the nation’s energy policies and boosts research and development of new technology, including so-called clean coal, while also making strides for environmental conservation, including the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The bill, passed April 20 with an 85-12 vote, will try to mesh with similar House legislation and, if signed into law by President Obama, would be the nation’s first major energy reform in nine years.

Called the Energy Policy Modernization Act, the legislation tackles an array of energy issues, ranging from efficiency measures to the streamlining of the permitting process for wind, solar and geothermal development on certain public lands. It also promotes billions of dollars of research for new energy technologies, including bulk energy storage, cyber-security and modernization of the energy grid, while also pushing for advancements in the sequestering of carbon emissions from coal burning, or so-called clean coal technology.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the clean-coal research could prevent the shuttering of sites such as the plant in Colstrip, where new emissions standards threaten to shutter the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River.

“It is a step in the right direction to get a situation where we can burn coal more climate friendly,” Tester said. “If we don’t do this, then it’s over with. There are people in the United States Senate and in the United States House that are saying it’s a shame Colstrip might be shut down but they are not looking for solutions.”

He added, “This is a bill that strikes a balance where everybody can win and that’s what Montanans want out of their Congress: something that works for everybody.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., praised the bill’s efforts to “allow more American energy to power the world and reduce dependence on Middle East and Russian sources.”

“That will provide an economic boost and strengthen our national security,” he said.

Tester and Daines both pushed for the passage of the bill and praised its focus on striking a balance between energy development and the environment.

Alongside the energy reforms, several key environmental measures were included in the bill from other pieces of legislation, including the Sportsmen’s Act. It directs land managers to identify and develop plans to provide access to high-priority lands for hunting, fishing, and shooting and increase Montana’s authority to fund shooting ranges on public lands. It also requires most BLM and Forest Service lands to be open for hunting, fishing, and shooting. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act is also reauthorized through 2019.

The bill also establishes a National Park Service Critical Maintenance and Revitalization Conservation Fund, which addresses high-priority deferred maintenance needs.

But perhaps chief among the measures directly impacting Montana’s outdoors, the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF fund stands out. The fund, established in 1965 as a conservation tool for public land management and recreation, expired late last year after Congress did not reauthorize the program. After urging from Montana’s D.C. delegation and others, federal lawmakers revived the fund for three years in December. The funds, which are generated out of a portion of the lease revenue from offshore oil and gas development, support state-identified and community-supported projects.

Montana has received roughly $540 million in LWCF funding since 1965. The Rails-to-Trails bike and pedestrian path that stretches from Somers to Kalispell to Kila was funded in part by LWCF funds, along with Kalispell’s Lawrence Park. The fund has also helped secure approximately 70 percent of the fishing access sites in Montana while securing land in the Swan Valley for hunting.

“The permanent reauthorization of LWCF is an important step forward for our state and our public lands,” Daines said.

Daines said LWCF will continue to preserve public access across the state, “which is very important to me as a Montanan.”

Tester described the permanent reauthorization of the conservation fund as “huge” for Montana.

As part of the reauthorization, the bill requires at least $10 million to be invested each year to increase public access for hunters and anglers across the U.S.

The bill was widely popular among industry groups but received a mixed reception in the environmental community. Groups such as the Nature Conservancy praised it for achieving “such great progress on policies that enable us to meet our nation’s energy needs while also conserving the natural resources we all depend upon.”

“This energy bill will benefit our nation’s lands and waters through a wide range of advances in natural resource protection and innovations that will promote energy efficiency,” Mark R. Tercek, the Conservancy’s President and CEO, said in a statement.

Other groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters, were critical of the energy measures that they say outweigh the environmental benefits.

“This package includes some important and widely supported provisions like the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as modest improvements in energy efficiency and research and development; however, it also contains far too many damaging, anti-environmental provisions, such as exemptions from EPA’s clean air protections, weakened environmental review, and increased export and development of fossil fuels,” LCV Vice President for Government Affairs Sara Chieffo said in a statement.