By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate passed the first major energy bill in nine years on Wednesday, legislation containing modest measures popular with both Republicans and Democrats to modernize the power grid and speed the permitting process for liquefied natural gas exports.
The bill, which passed 85-12, attempts to protect the power grid from extreme weather events such as ice storms and hurricanes, and from cyber attacks. It also aims to spur innovations in storage of power from wind and solar energy.
The House of Representatives passed a similar bill last year.
The Energy Policy and Modernization Act, the first wide- ranging energy bill passed by the Senate since George W. Bush was president, would increase U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), eventually helping to give European consumers alternatives to relying mainly on Russia for gas.
After disagreements held the bill up for months, senators last week dropped measures from the bill to aid Flint, Michigan overcome a drinking water crisis, in which children have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, and on offshore drilling.
Lawmakers from both the House and Senate will next iron out differences over the bill. The Senate bill, for instance, requires the Department of Energy to issue a decision on LNG projects within 45 days of an environmental assessment, while the House bill directs the DOE to make the decision on permits after 30 days.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state who co-sponsored the bill, said shortly before it passed that she hoped the chambers would move quickly "so that we can realize the opportunity to help our businesses and consumers plan for the energy future."
The White House has signaled that President Barack Obama would sign the bill.
Charlie Riedl, the head of industry group the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said passage of the bill was a "big step forward" and that certainty about the regulatory process is "crucial" for projects to export the fuel to Asia and Europe that cost billions of dollars to build.
Rob Cowin, director of government affairs at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, said in a blog the bill falls "far short" of what is needed to promote wind and solar power, but is "better than doing nothing."
The Senate on Tuesday passed several amendments to the bill, including restricting most sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve when oil prices are low.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Richard Cowan; editing by Grant McCool)