by the Editorial Board
New York Times editorial
The Senate voted Wednesday to approve an energy bill that contains provisions encouraging land conservation, renewable energy and improved efficiency. It also includes bad ideas that would harm the environment, particularly a provision that would encourage the burning of trees to generate electricity.
Lawmakers in the Senate struck a deal last week to advance the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, which was introduced by Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington. The bill is a modest attempt at bipartisanship in a Congress that has seen very little of it. Both sides of the aisle put aside their most ambitious energy proposals in an effort to achieve small gains. That is not necessarily a bad thing, given how deeply divided the two parties are on energy and environmental policy.
The bill would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an immensely valuable open-space program that uses oil and gas royalties to pay for projects that preserve undeveloped landscapes and historic and cultural sites. The program, which has protected millions of acres in its 51-year history, has never been fully funded and was even allowed to expire briefly in 2015. At least now its survival is assured.
The bill also includes measures to improve the electricity grid so it is capable of accommodating more renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. It seeks to improve the cybersecurity of the grid, an important measure given recent attempts by hackers to disrupt vital computer systems; sets new efficiency standards for federal buildings; and in other ways would reduce residential and commercial energy use.
However, it also contains harmful measures that need to be stripped out before it becomes law. Its most problematic provision, a bipartisan amendment advocated by several senators, including Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, requires the government to consider electricity generated by burning trees and other forest biomass as carbon-neutral.
The underlying assumption is that the carbon emissions caused by power plants that burn wood are canceled out by the carbon absorbed by new and growing trees. But this is a dangerous misconception. Burning wood releases carbon almost instantly, whereas it will take years, if not decades, for new trees to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon, as 65 scientists and environmentalists pointed out in a letter to senators in February. The Obama administration has previously opposed classifying the burning of trees as carbon-neutral under the law.
Instead of blithely declaring forests to be a carbon-free source of renewable energy, Congress should let the Environmental Protection Agency make case-by-case determinations of neutrality under its Clean Power Plan, something it is much better suited to do than Congress is.
Environmentalists have also raised objections to other parts of the bill that, in the name of streamlining regulations, would make it easier for the energy industry to win approval for natural-gas export terminals, mines, oil and gas drilling and hydroelectric power plants.
The House passed an energy bill in December, with which this legislation would have to be reconciled. The House bill, which was passed mostly with Republican votes, does not include the Senate biomass provision, but contains numerous terrible proposals. It would make it easy to have natural gas pipelines cut across national parks and make it much harder for the government to improve energy efficiency through building codes. The Obama administration has said it would veto the House bill.
Bipartisan legislation always involves compromise. But unless the conference bill improves on the Senate and House versions, this legislation could end up accelerating climate change.