The Senate Is Fighting With Itself Over America's Oil Reserve

It's an easy source of cash, but not everyone wants it to become an ATM.

oil-storage facility in Cushing, Okla. (National Journal)

A day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced plans to tap the nation's emergency oil reserves to pay for a long-term transportation bill, the Senate Energy Committee rolled out a bill with a simple message: hands off.

A bipartisan comprehensive energy package announced Wednesday by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee contains language that would clarify how to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the oil reserve that's designed to be used to soften the blow of supply shocks. The bill would reaffirm existing policy about why the SPR exists and clarify that cash from selling the oil should be used for purposes related to energy infrastructure and security.

Not on that list? Highways.

That's despite McConnell's inclusion of an SPR sale as part of a patchwork of funding measures to pay for the first three years of a six-year transportation bill. Under the plan, which is being debated on the Senate floor over the next two weeks, the U.S. would raise an estimated $9 billion from selling off 101 million barrels of oil between 2018 and 2025.

The House also recently passed a health care bill that sells off 70 million barrels to give money to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration in an effort to speed up drug innovation.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski has come out strongly against the SPR sales, saying in a floor speech Tuesday that the transportation-funding plan was a "shortsighted sale that undermines our emergency preparedness.

"It would be a travesty to dramatically reduce the size of the SPR while continuing to ignore its maintenance and operational needs," Murkowski said.

A committee aide said that the bipartisan energy bill shows that there's "pretty much zero sunlight" between Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell on the SPR. The bill would amend existing law to say that revenue from SPR sales would be used for facility upgrades and other uses, while reaffirming that it should be used only in emergencies.

But, the aide said, the energy package would not override the funding plan in the highway bill.

The SPR has become an appealing piggy bank for lawmakers because the boom in domestic production means that there's more in the reserves and less needed to be on hand as an emergency supply. The reserve currently has 695 million barrels in its stockpile, according to the Department of Energy.

The reserve language comes as part of a more than 300-page bill unveiled Wednesday, the result of months of bipartisan negotiations over 114 bills from both sides of the aisle. The bipartisan deal from Murkowski and Cantwell would make reforms to energy-efficiency language, including efficiency measures for buildings, and has new language to tighten cybersecurity and secure the electric grid. The bill also contains a lengthy title on energy infrastructure, setting a streamlined permitting process for natural-gas exports.

As a Democratic priority, the bill would reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the program that uses offshore oil and natural-gas revenue to cover parks, conservation areas, and wildlife habitats. The LWCF is set to expire in September, and Democrats have been pushing for a long-term reauthorization.

The bill skirts controversial measures that wouldn't pass muster with either side. That means that some top-tier items like a repeal of the crude-oil-export ban is off the bill, although it is possible that Murkowski will bring it up as an amendment in committee or on the floor.

The release comes the same day that a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee unanimously approved its own comprehensive energy bill, which was also seen as taking a narrow scope that left both sides wanting more. There are some areas of overlap in the bill, but the Senate bill has a broader scope in part because the Senate Energy Committee has a larger jurisdiction than its House counterpart.

The Senate bill is set for a pair of markups on Tuesday and Thursday next week, and Murkowski has said she hopes it can reach the floor in the fall.