Renewables need role in ‘energy dominance’ — Bush official

Source: Pamela King, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2018

An ex-Interior Department official under former President George W. Bush last week questioned the Trump administration’s focus on oil, gas and coal as the drivers of an “energy dominance” agenda.

While defending his department’s proposed budget on Capitol Hill, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke assured lawmakers that all sources of energy would contribute to a Trump administration goal of energy dominance and an Interior target of erasing an $11.6 billion maintenance backlog.

Interior’s suggested spending plan told a different story, with increases proposed for oil, gas and coal initiatives and cuts floated for renewables programs.

“We should be looking forward, not backward. And forward means looking at clean energy,” said Lynn Scarlett, a former Interior deputy secretary who also served as the department’s acting chief in 2006. “It means looking at the opportunity for renewables. It means looking at the opportunities for energy efficiency. It means looking at the opportunities for new transportation modes.

“That is where the future lies,” said Scarlett, who is now global managing director for public policy at the Nature Conservancy, during a panel discussion hosted by the Wilderness Society at the National Press Club.

The Energy Information Administration last week reported continued growth in renewable fuels’ stake in the electricity generation mix.

Wind accounted for 6.3 percent of net U.S. generation in 2017, and solar contributed 1.3 percent — record numbers for both energy sources, EIA wrote.

During an appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee this month, Zinke faced questions from legislators who puzzled over his department’s proposal to cut funding for programs to support wind and solar energy on federal lands and waters.

“You stated that budget cuts for renewable energy programs are driven by expected demand,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said to Zinke on March 15. “Are you anticipating a 15 percent decrease in national demand for offshore renewable energy resources in fiscal year 2019 compared to 2017, and if so, what criteria are you using to determine those projections?”

Under its proposed fiscal 2019 budget, Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would cut its renewable energy program by about $3 million, or nearly 13 percent, from 2017 levels.

“It’s matched to expected demand,” Zinke said. “I’ll show you the data.”

Interior has not provided those data to E&E News.

“I’ll let you know if they come across my desk,” department spokeswoman Heather Swift wrote in an email.

In an exchange with Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Zinke said his proposed budget is an attempt to recalibrate the Obama administration’s focus on building up incentives for renewable sources.

“The last administration wanted a larger profile of renewables and put a budget in place to kick-start it,” the secretary said.

Gomez said demand is an effective metric for funding distributions but questioned whether Zinke’s proposed budget hit the mark.

“I support a balanced portfolio, but it needs to be honestly balanced, and right now it definitely seems like one energy source is being promoted and given more funding than the other energy sources,” Gomez said.

Budget proposals are largely symbolic documents. A “skinny budget” proposed last year by President Trump would have slashed 12 percent of Interior funding for fiscal 2018.

An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last week disposed of those cuts and funded the department at $13.1 billion — well above the $11.7 billion budget floated by the White House (Greenwire, March 22).

But the proposed numbers do have meaning, Scarlett said.

“Where your priorities are is reflected in money,” she said.

‘Energy weakness’

Last week’s panel also opened the floor for discussion of a new entry in the political lexicon: “energy weakness.”

In his January announcement of a revised five-year offshore leasing program, Zinke said the draft proposed plan to open more than 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf to drilling demonstrated “a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance.”

The Trump administration appears to think the United States is destined to rely on imports — the apparent definition of weakness on energy — unless the federal government takes rigorous action, former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told attendees of the panel.

The shale boom, which made the United States one of the world’s top oil producers, should have turned that thinking on its head, he said.

“In a nanosecond, we went from scarcity to abundance,” Dorgan said.

Energy dominance has been a popular talking point for the Trump administration in its quest to bolster the oil, gas and coal industries over the past year. Energy weakness appears to be a new concept in the policy and strategy world, said Peter Shulman, a Case Western Reserve University associate professor who has studied the origins of energy dominance.

“In an administration rich in catchphrases, it seems like the natural antithesis to energy dominance,” he said. “If you don’t have energy dominance, I guess you have energy weakness.

“I’m not sure if this is a helpful way of thinking about our globally interconnected energy systems, though,” Shulman added.

A December note from ClearView Energy Partners LLC explored energy dominance as a foreign policy risk, finding that initial benefits of increased U.S. exports could eventually backfire if buyers reject those shipments on political grounds.

The administration’s energy agenda has also focused on industries characterized by their boom-and-bust cycles, Shulman said. Prioritizing oil production displaces resources for other types of energy, delaying potential technological advances on non-fossil sources, he said.

“It’s kind of energy weakness embedded right inside energy dominance,” Shulman said.