By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday began debate on the country's first major energy bill in over eight years, featuring measures aimed at protecting the electric power grid against cyber attacks and speeding exports of liquefied natural gas.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican chair of the Senate energy committee and Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, its ranking Democrat, urged lawmakers not to thwart passage of the bipartisan bill, which cleared their panel in an 18-4 vote.
A handful of senators planned to file amendments to the bill to spur legislative action on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and to address other more contentious energy issues.
Aides said Democratic Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan plan to offer amendments laying out a legislative response to the Flint emergency. They would not provide details on the amendments.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and other western lawmakers are expected to offer an amendment that would make it harder for the U.S. Interior Department to move forward with a moratorium on coal development on federal land introduced this month.
"Let's show the Senate can work. Let's not go crazy with a bunch of ancillary things," Cantwell said on the Senate floor.
Murkowski said the bill is the result of more than a year of working with committee members to find common ground on a handful of key priorities.
"We found common ground in many areas, more, perhaps, than any of us expected," Murkowski said. The bill focuses on energy efficiency, infrastructure, supply, accountability, and conservation.
Measures include expediting the permitting of LNG projects, natural gas pipeline permits, boosting hydropower production and improving defenses against cyber attacks on the electric grid.
Murkowski and Cantwell tried to craft a bill that could pass with bipartisan support in an election year.
In December, Congress voted to repeal a 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil, a Republican policy priority. The deal also included the Democratic goal of extending tax breaks to boost renewable energy for five years.
"Not only will this bipartisan legislation help bring our energy policies in line with the demands of today, it will also help position us to benefit from the opportunities of tomorrow," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He told reporters he expected to complete debate on the bill next week.
The Obama administration said in a statement it "supports some provisions of the legislation" but has concerns with a few elements.
(Additional reporting by Rick Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Gregorio)