WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2017 - House and Senate committees are busily debating energy policy options that include boosting support for coal, carbon capture and storage, using more wind and solar power, addressing climate change, and the federal energy research programs threatened by steep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have added urgency to these ongoing congressional hearings on divisive energy issues. As House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden, R-Ore., explained last week, “Harvey and Irma highlight the importance of a reliable grid that is not too dependent on one source of energy.”

In last week’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Accelerating the Deployment and Use of Carbon Capture, Committee Chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said his goal is to find “a bipartisan way to examine how we can expand and accelerate CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) deployment and use. When we do that, we promote American leadership in technological innovation, increase our energy security, and improve our environment.”

Barrasso, along with other Republicans and hearing witnesses, charged that unneeded environmental federal regulations have driven costs up sharply and delayed the use of CCUS. Democrats responded that the main obstacle instead has been the absence of financial incentives to spur investment. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said those incentives would be provided by either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program to put a price on carbon emissions.

Despite those different views, the committee’s Democrats joined Republicans in supporting carbon capture – and Republicans voiced support for reducing carbon emissions.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., added that the message from Harvey and Irma is that along with providing emergency help for the storms’ victims, “We must also confront the reality of climate change.”

“We cannot ignore that carbon emissions are causing ocean temperatures to get warmer, which is fueling more powerful hurricanes,” Gillibrand said. “Reducing carbon emissions should be an urgent priority for this committee.”

Gillibrand said that while carbon capture “deserves our attention” as one way to reduce emissions, Congress also needs to “facilitate the development of renewable technologies like wind and solar.” She pointed out the U.S. is risking its position as a world leader in wind and solar, because “a lot of the manufacturing has gone to China, our biggest competitor,” due to lack of investment.

Kevin Cramer ND

Rep. Kevin Cramer wants DOE, FERC to do more for coal

At the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last week on “Defining Reliability in a Transforming Electricity Industry,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., championed competing priorities. Like Gillibrand, he acknowledged the need to reduce emissions by developing carbon capture and storage and other “clean coal” technologies. But he also urged the Trump administration to find ways to prevent “the forced shutdown of coal baseload generation” and prevent “increasing the cost of electricity for consumers.”

From this perspective, it’s important to support coal power plants even when coal-generated electricity is more expensive than wind or solar power.

In Cramer’s view, coal should be “compensated” for providing what he considers a more reliable energy source than its renewable energy competitors.

Answering Cramer, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chair Neil Chatterjee explained that “Being from Kentucky, I have seen firsthand the importance coal-fired generation plays in our marketplace.” He added, however, that FERC is “fuel-neutral.”

When Cramer pressed him for reassurance about protecting coal plants threatened with premature closure, Chatterjee responded that “I believe in states’ rights. It is their prerogative to determine their sources of generation, and their generation mix.” But he added that “When it affects interstate commerce, and potentially does have threats to reliability, I think FERC has the authority to weigh in.”

Acknowledging it would be tough to override state Renewable Energy Portfolio standards that require utilities to increase their use of renewable energy, Chatterjee concluded that “I think it will be something that we will look at closely and carefully and build a record, adhere to the science and engineering and technology of the grid, and make those careful determinations.”

Cramer didn’t give up. He next asked Patricia Hoffman, the Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, to find new ways for DOE to support coal “both through its R&D and through its advocacy.”

Echoing President Trump’s campaign promises, Hoffman replied that DOE “will continue to invest in advancement in coal technology and utilization of coal, looking at job growth and opportunities to continue to support the coal industry.”

Meil Chatterjee

FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee

Hoffman added that DOE is also looking for new ways to recognize “the value that coal brings” so that coal can be “compensated for the services it provides (such as) frequency support, frequency response, fuel diversity.”