WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2016 - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised an open amendment process for the Senate floor debate set to begin Wednesday on the bipartisan Murkowski-Cantwell Energy Policy Modernization Act, S. 2012.
McConnell’s open process, however, risks allowing deal-killing partisan amendments – such as threatened GOP measures favoring coal, oil and natural gas, and so-called “Keep it in the Ground” amendments from Democrats aimed at curbing fossil fuels production.
In preparation for the debate, the Obama administration is weighing in with a wave of proposed new measures affecting coal, oil and natural gas production.
President Obama highlighted a sharper focus on fossil fuels in his Jan. 12 State of the Union address. “We’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”
Along with ordering a possible three-year freeze on leasing federal or tribal land for coal production, the Interior Department announced new proposals last week to limit accidentally or deliberately releasing or burning off natural gas from oil and gas wells on those lands. These actions have raised fossil fuel industry fears that the restrictions could be a first step toward similar measures affecting operations on private land.
The draft proposal to limit emissions from oil and natural gas operations is aimed at cutting methane emissions at least 40 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. As with the administration’s freeze on new coal leases, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says the changes are also designed to increase fossil fuel royalty payments “to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”
American Petroleum Institute (API) President Jack Gerard counters that the methane problem is caused by federal restrictions on building new infrastructure, not by industry wastefulness. “If we had the pipes to move it,” he says, “there would be less need for venting and flaring.”
ExxonMobil’s annual Outlook for Energy report released this week acknowledges the need to curb emissions to address climate risks. But the report concludes that “substituting natural gas for coal is a far more cost-effective option for curbing emissions than building new wind or solar facilities for electricity generation. By focusing on market-based solutions, governments can avoid requiring consumers and taxpayers to pay for high-cost solutions when better options abound.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promises to “continue to fight back” against the administration’s efforts to promote renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels. “As the markets drop, and America’s saving and retirement portfolios suffer, it’s astonishing that this president would seek to further cripple America’s energy industry” Ryan says.
One reason for intense interest in the Senate energy bill debate is that any new energy-industry investments will affect the U.S. energy mix for decades. The activist group Environmental Action warns that “2016 is going to be a defining year for the path our country takes, or doesn't, to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground and undertake a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.”
Expect to hear much more about the competing energy options in the Senate’s energy bill debate this week. The Murkowski-Cantwell Energy Policy Modernization Act, S. 2012, is named after Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the panel’s ranking member.