Senate votes on fracking & endangered species pave way for Keystone XL passage

WASHINGTON — The Senate knocked down more than a dozen amendments on energy and the environment Wednesday, as Republicans worked to finish a nearly four-week debate over Keystone XL.

The casualties included proposals involving liquefied natural gas exports, endangered species protections for the lesser prairie-chicken and hydraulic fracturing.

Only one measure was adopted — a modest proposal from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, — that would direct the Energy Department to coordinate programs for energy efficiency and retrofitting projects at U.S. schools.

Instead, for more than four hours, the chamber voted one by one to reject proposals that failed to secure a 60-vote majority needed for adoption under a Senate agreement.

The marathon helped pave the way for a final vote on — and likely passage of — the underlying legislation to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline as early as Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has been managing the debate for the GOP, said she was hopeful the Keystone XL debate would come to a close soon, allowing the Senate “to move on to other business.”

“Our colleagues can see the daylight to finishing this up tomorrow, hopefully,” added Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Democratic floor manager of the Keystone bill, after the vote series Wednesday.

At least six more amendment votes will come first on Thursday morning, before the Senate votes on another bid to bring debate to a close. A similar effort failed earlier this week, amid opposition from Democrats who said there were still outstanding issues to be debated.

One of them was a proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that took aim at the “Halliburton loophole” — a provision in the 2005 energy law nicknamed for the oilfield services contractor that exempts hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“As it stands now, gas companies in this country do not have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that keeps our tap water clear, safe and clean,” Gillibrand said. “This special exemption is unfair, it’s unnecessary and it’s unsafe.”

With support from 35 senators, the proposal fell 25 votes shy of the 60 needed for adoption. But environmentalists noted that the vote — the first of its kind in the Senate on the issue — was important to put senators on record.

The Senate also voted down a proposal from Ted Cruz, R-Texas that would have put LNG exports to World Trade Organization member nations on the same legal footing as those destined or countries that have free-trade agreements with the United States. Current law requires the Energy Department to grant authorization for natural gas exports to those free-trade partners without modification or delay.

Cruz’s amendment was rejected 53-45.

The chamber also defeated Sen. Jerry Moran’s plan to delist the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, effectively reversing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year to designate it as a threatened species.

Other rejected proposals included:

  • one from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., expressing the sense of Congress that the production tax credit used to finance wind farms should be extended five years, until Jan. 1, 2020. The measure received 47 “aye” votes in the chamber.
  • a proposal from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would express the sense of Congress that climate change is already impacting the reliability of critical infrastructure and that much of it is located near the coast, in floodplains or in other areas vulnerable to sea level rise. The amendment also asserted that “it is fiscally prudent to prepare for and seek to mitigate” the impacts of climate change on buildings, ports, roads and other critical infrastructure.
  • an amendment from Murkowski that would block the federal government from managing land as wilderness — the highest status of protections for public lands — unless Congress passes legislation designating an area as wilderness within a year after federal regulators recommend it be treated as such.

Murkowski’s amendment was inspired by the Obama administration’s announcement Sunday that it would treat roughly 12 million additional acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, barring oil drilling in that territory.

Critics said Murkowski’s failed proposal would have affected tens of millions of acres of public lands acres the country.

“We’re just a few weeks into this new Congress and we are already facing such an all-out assault on our nation’s heritage,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. Some proposals would undo “literally decades of progress on land conservation.”

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