Senators push wildfire legislation in energy bill negotiations

Senators push wildfire legislation in energy bill negotiations

04 October 2016

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USA —   Two western senators urged members of the conference committee negotiating a comprehensive energy package to move quickly because their states have been devastated by this year’s wildfire season.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Steve Daines, D-Mont., sent a letter Tuesday to the top lawmakers on the energy bill conference committee to include changes to the way wildfires are fought by the federal government.

Reforms to the U.S. Forest Service’s management of wildfires are included in the legislation. Lawmakers want to end the Forest Service’s practice of fire borrowing, or taking money from other parts of the agency’s budget to fight wildfires. About half of the Forest Service’s budget is now spent on fighting wildfires.

Daines and Feinstein co-sponsored legislation to allow the federal government to declare wildfires natural disasters, which would open new streams of funding.

“We urge you to include reforms in the final energy bill to enable the Forest Service to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how other agencies pay for disaster responses — through funding that is unconstrained by stringent spending caps,” the letter stated.

“We believe this reform is critically needed and appropriate considering that natural conditions such as chronic drought unquestionably elevate the risk and severity of wildfires.”

According to the letter, more than 630,000 acres of California and 100,000 acres of Montana have been burned in wildfires this year. Millions more acres are considered in danger of burning.

The senators also pushed for several other provisions in the legislation that would allow for more reform of the wildfire fighting process, including additional fire-risk mapping and moving forward with projects that would reduce hazardous fuels, such as fallen trees.

Negotiations on the energy bill began last month and continued into Congress’ break for campaign season. A deal must be reached before the current session of Congress ends at the end of the year.

The Senate and the House both have passed the comprehensive energy reform bill, but they are two very different versions. While the Senate’s bill included priorities of both parties, including provisions to expedite natural gas exports and increased investments in renewable energy, the House bill passed with a vote close to party lines and doesn’t include many Democratic priorities.

The Senate bill expedites the approval of natural gas exports, requires increased energy efficiency in buildings and increases research on energy-storage technologies. It also would make several small changes that aim to increase electric grid reliability while keeping costs low.

The House version of the bill contained some of those proposals, but Democrats criticized it for language they say will increase fossil fuel dependence. Democrats also don’t like that the House bill stripped out some of the proposals to increase renewable energy use and energy efficiency and that it doesn’t address climate change.

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