Senate energy panel leaders expect sustained action on climate

Source: Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee kicked off yesterday what its leaders said was the first in a series about the electric sector’s role in climate change.

While the prescriptive solutions from lawmakers and witnesses largely reflected the dominant thought of how to better unleash low-carbon technologies through tax incentives and research funding, the hearing may have achieved more for its symbolism than immediate policy implications.

It was the first ENR hearing on climate specifically since 2012. And with more coming, the committee is building to something that could introduce additional energy efficiency or research development policy levers to guide the electric sector in more carbon reduction strategies.

“This has got to be a priority for all of us,” Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in her opening statement. “Certainly in Alaska we view that there is no choice here.”

Not likely to be included in that effort are specific government mandates for an energy transition, senators indicated.

Following the hearing, Murkowski told reporters it acted more as “an oversight of the electricity sector on the impacts from climate.”

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Murkowski said. “No one is talking about legislation, authorizing or otherwise, at this point in time. We are just doing our due diligence. … This was just a good part of the beginning of the conversation.”

Climate change has increasingly bubbled to the surface of Capitol Hill considerations in the past few months, led mainly by the progressive vision of the Green New Deal of shifting industries away from greenhouse gas emissions to clean energy within the next decade.

Republicans and some Democrats have scoffed at the pace and dollar figure that type of radical shift would represent to the economy, but the momentum behind the Green New Deal has caused those doubters to think seriously about alternatives.

Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking member, used the hearing to set parameters on how they think Congress’ climate strategy should play out.

For Murkowski, that effort should focus on innovation through research and development and ensure affordable energy costs and grid reliability.

“As much as we want to make sure we are moving to reduced emissions and lowering the costs, we all want to make sure that when we need it, it is there,” Murkowski said.

For Manchin, the climate strategy “must be ground in reality” that fossil fuel use would continue and that traditional energy state producers should not get left behind in the clean energy transition.

“The path to a climate solution must offer West Virginia opportunity — not additional economic burdens,” Manchin said.

“The chairman and I share a deep concern for our rural communities and seek to use this committee as a means of identifying and legislating pathways to ensure our constituents have a role in the clean energy future,” he added.

Hailing from a traditional coal state, Manchin saw protests over his ascension to the top Democratic spot from some environment groups that feared he would do more to advance fossil fuel interests than to curb climate change.

Manchin used much of the hearing to nail down how and with what data the panel of witnesses came to their thought processes and conclusions behind climate change. Manchin’s questions appeared to be an effort to establish a common ground of facts that the committee could look to build on.

“You can’t play a game of darts if everyone is arguing about where the bull’s-eye is,” Manchin said.

From the electric sector’s perspective, the panel of witnesses appearing before the committee had a positive message about the industry’s carbon reduction abilities, led by cheap natural gas and increased renewable competitiveness.

Since 2005, the sector has decreased its carbon dioxide emissions by 28 percent, making it the nation’s second-largest emitter behind transportation.

“While this transition has had some impacts, it is delivering significant benefits to the consumers,” said Joseph Kelliher, an executive vice president with NextEra Energy Inc. and a former chairman at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“This transition has also resulted in significant environmental benefits, from sharply lower emissions from a generation fleet that is younger, cleaner, more efficient, more diverse and more flexible in performance.”

To go even further, some on the witness panel said, the federal government should avoid falling into a specific technology prescription based only on one set of power generation like renewables.

“One of the things I would encourage the committee not to do is prematurely limit options that are needed to address this issue,” said Susan Tierney, a former Department of Energy assistant secretary for policy under the Clinton administration.