Missoulian: Energy bill debate contains numerous Montana provisions

A legislative package now before the U.S. Senate has a lot of Montana issues woven in, including possible permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 began debate Thursday, and is expected to face amendments well into next week before a final vote. Also known as S. 2012, it affects energy-efficiency standards in buildings and cars, cybersecurity threats, next-generation nuclear plants, recycling and loan programs.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., spoke for the bill on the Senate floor Thursday after it cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 18-4 vote.

“The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 is a crucial step forward in modernizing our nation’s energy policy and public lands management for the first time in almost a decade,” Daines said. “And we’re doing it in a strong, bipartisan fashion.”

One provision of the bill would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided millions of dollars to protect or improve public lands. The program expired last Sept. 30 during a debate over the general federal budget. Congress reauthorized it on a three-year basis in December.

“Daines was instrumental in keeping the call for permanent reauthorization strong,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s one of the hallmark conservation programs out there.”For 50 years, LWCF was authorized to use up to $900 million a year generated from federal offshore oil and gas leases to buy wildlife habitat, park land and conservation easements. However, Congress only appropriated the full annual amount twice in its history. The fund was often raided to cover other government expenses. In last December’s temporary reauthorization, it was only funded $450 million for 2016.

The coming amendment process has both boosts and pitfalls for LWCF, Gale said. One proposed amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah would require continual reauthorization of the program instead of making it permanent. Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., is considering an amendment that would give states a 60 percent slice of the funding. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed making the $900 million appropriation a permanent feature of the program, instead of allocating different levels every two years.

Other Montana-related provisions in the energy bill include construction licenses for Gibson Dam on the Rocky Mountain Front and Clark Canyon Dam near Dillon. A public lands renewable energy development provision would clarify how wind and solar projects mitigate their impact on wildlife habitat and might provide additional royalty money for state, county and wildlife programs. That proposal is co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“Montana is home to diverse public lands that offer tremendous clean energy potential,” Tester said in an email Thursday. “This bipartisan bill strikes a balance that will create jobs, preserve our outdoor way of life and provide a boost to rural Montana communities.”

Lee is also seeking an amendment that would limit presidential authority to create national monuments using the Antiquities Act. Another amendment may permanently remove gray wolves from federal Endangered Species Act protection.

The bill might also establish a $150 million National Park Service Maintenance and Revitalization Conservation Fund.