Murkowski, Moniz camaraderie could bode well for compromise bill 

Source: Hannah Northey and Nick Juliano, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The ongoing collaboration between Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and lawmakers crafting a comprehensive energy bill appears to be paying dividends.

Making a cordial visit to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday to tout his department’s first Quadrennial Energy Review, Moniz earned effusive praise from Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who commended the secretary for all the help he had provided through visits and frequent phone calls.

The relationship will be key as Murkowski tries to take some of the recommendations from the QER and turn them into the first bipartisan, comprehensive energy bill to be signed into law since President Obama’s days in the Senate. Following yesterday’s hearing, Murkowski said she hoped Moniz and his staff would follow up on the 347-page QER with more specific legislative language that could be incorporated into an eventual bill.

“I do want to see something from the administration,” Murkowski said, praising Moniz’s practical approach to challenges such as a rickety electric grid and an aging network of oil and natural gas pipelines.

“The secretary is a guy who’s not just focused on sending a message,” she added. “I think he likes to get things done.”

The committee’s hearing on the QER provided an opportunity for various senators to probe Moniz on ideas for a comprehensive energy bill, with Republicans homing in on cutting red tape for oil and gas infrastructure, exports and transmission, and Democrats veering toward talk of greening and modernizing the grid.

Murkowski called Moniz an action-oriented secretary even as she gently chided him for omitting from the QER some of her agenda items, namely lifting a decades-old ban on exporting domestic crude and advancing the Keystone XL pipeline. In response to a question on crude exports, Moniz largely reiterated a point he had made directly to top energy CEOs at last week’s IHS CERAWeek conference — that it is tough to justify exports when the United States still imports such a substantial share of the oil it uses (EnergyWire, April 24).

The hearing reflected a push on both sides of the aisle to find areas of compromise as the Senate crafts a larger energy bill, and Murkowski told reporters after the hearing that she’s not “fixated” on a large energy bill including a provision to lift the crude export ban. Murkowski signaled that language could take the shape of an amendment or stand-alone bill.

A number of Republicans focused on permitting timelines and questioned the recommendations of the QER.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said he appreciated the report’s acknowledgement of the need for new pipelines and power lines and federal approval of those projects. But he questioned why the administration chose to call for an uptick in permitting fees and agency coordination instead of tackling long approval times.

“The administration doesn’t make mention of establishing deadlines for permit decisions, it doesn’t mention repealing duplicative permitting regulations, it doesn’t mention limiting lawsuits, which slow the permitting process,” Barrasso said.

Moniz replied that DOE is trying to work within its authority, and issues like lawsuits are far outside of the government’s control.

Focus on the grid

A handful of Democrats on the ENR panel appear to be eyeing legislative proposals to address complex technological changes taking hold of the country’s energy system.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich quizzed Moniz about whether state regulators have the tools they need to adequately quantify the benefits and costs of distributed generation and storage to make accurate rate cases and what role the national labs could play.

Heinrich expressed concern that the U.S. electric sector could see an unstable business model in the future if such technologies aren’t accounted for.

Heinrich said he’s been encouraging utilities to get in front of such rapid changes, but he also pointed to the need for good data at the state level.

“I think one of the things we need to see is the ability of states to make very accurate decisions about the costs and benefits, both sides of the ledger, of those things being brought onto the grid,” Heinrich said.

After acknowledging that “there’s a long way to go,” Moniz said DOE needs better formulas to gauge the benefits of such new technologies and services, including in the distribution system. Moniz said the challenge is trying to understand the value of distributed generation and being able to connect to the overall grid.

“I think your idea of getting a lab focused on this would be good,” Moniz told Heinrich, adding that the budget includes money for grid modernization. “We could take that on.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) moved to associate himself with Heinrich’s comments on distributed energy and storage with a throwback reference to the 1960s movie “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman.

King referenced a line in the movie in which the young graduate Benjamin Braddock — played by Hoffman — is counseled to think about a future in the plastics industry.

“The guy in that movie famously says ‘plastics,’ famously ‘plastics,'” King said. “If it were today, he’d say ‘storage, energy storage’ that’s going to be a huge issue.”

King said DOE could help Congress by finding the right “number” to charge homeowners with rooftop solar panels for backup and capacity.

“It’s got to be sufficient so other ratepayers aren’t bearing the cost, but it can’t be so high to unreasonably burden this nascent development, which I think is very important and is going to happen anyway,” King said.