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February 1, 2023

E&E News: Energy and Commerce hearing offers glimpse of future fights

Nico Portuondu

PUBLISHED: February 1, 2023 at 06:25 AM EST

E&E DAILY | Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee agree that “energy security” is a problem, but both sides remain miles apart on what the federal government should do about it.

On a day in which the panel officially welcomed nine new Republican members and its first woman chair in its more than 200-year history, Tuesday’s hearing on “American energy expansion” showed that the committee is likely destined for more of the same partisanship on energy issues.

Indeed, Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) later announced another hearing for next week on over a dozen GOP-led energy and environment bills, including one that would prohibit a president from issuing a moratorium on fracking, a repeal of the methane fee and a repeal of a provision in the Clean Air Act dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, among others. Few of the measures are likely to attract Democratic support.

In Tuesday’s nearly six-hour hearing, Republicans repeatedly hammered home assertions that increasing fossil fuel production in the United States would both limit its vulnerabilities to global energy prices and decrease global emissions due to better carbon capture technology compared with that in other countries.

“Addressing emissions and unleashing abundant affordable and reliable energy aren’t mutually exclusive,” said Rodgers. “We must continue innovating and taking advantage of our abundant natural resources and reducing emissions.”

But that time-worn pitch doesn’t hold water for Democrats, who instead believe that they can increase energy security by backing domestic clean energy production that could free the country from the price whims of globally traded oil.

As a result, Democrats and Republicans spent much of the hearing talking past each other, saying that they believe in abundant, cheap energy but have fundamentally different beliefs over how to deliver that to the American people.

“I couldn’t help but think, if an alien was listening to us today, they might conclude that those on my left hated fossil fuels and would do everything to stomp them out,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah). “Likewise, they might surmise that my colleagues on the right might want to go crazy on fossil fuels and do nothing else.

“We spend too much of our time on the areas we disagree.”

Bipartisan glimmers

Despite those disagreements, Curtis and other lawmakers touched on energy policies that could win support on both sides of the aisle this year.

Paul Dabbar, a Republican witness and former undersecretary of the Department of Energy, based his testimony on the need for the committee to develop a permitting reform plan streamlining regulations on domestic energy infrastructure projects.

That testimony partly matched comments from the Democratic witness, who said that permitting reform should be the top priority for the committee so the country can meet its clean energy goals.

“I think there does need to be more focus on grid enhancement,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, former majority staff director of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

She said Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) failed permitting proposal from last year had “some language on the grid that I think Energy and Commerce staff also liked.”

Rodgers earlier this month said that the “time has come” to streamline energy construction regulations (E&E Daily, Jan. 12).

Republicans are still formulating what exactly their permitting reform package will look like, but they may already have an ally in the Democratic Party.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a moderate clean energy backer, said he would support a permitting overhaul package that would reform the National Environmental Policy Act, normally hallowed ground with most Democrats.

“We have NEPA to thank for a great deal of environmental preservation, but its implementation is inevitably slow,” said Peters. “We have to update our environmental laws to make it easier, not harder, to build.”

Without specific details, Republicans are still a long way from winning bipartisan support on permitting reform from Democrats, who are mostly reticent to touch long-standing environmental protection laws.

Republicans could find success in convincing Democrats to join them on initiatives that support baseload, low-carbon energies, like nuclear power, hydrogen and still-nascent nuclear fusion.

Democrats have also expressed a willingness to join Republicans on energy initiatives that counter China, including measures that address critical mineral deficiencies (E&E Daily, Jan. 13).

New rules spark Democrats’ complaints

Democrats, however, weren’t as agreeable with Republicans on new committee rules instituted by Rodgers.

Rep. Nanette Díaz Barragán (D-Calif.) expressed outrage over the removal of environmental justice mentions in the specific jurisdictions of the E&C subcommittees.

“That is a huge mistake,” said Barragán. “We’ve heard about communities in Democrat and Republican districts that have [environmental justice] issues; this is not just a Democrat issue.”

Ranking member of the full committee Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) also cautioned Republicans over potentially abusing the power of the subpoena. With Republicans gaining control of the committees, they have promised to use their new subpoena powers to extensively investigate energy issues like the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and DOE loans.

“Experience shows that a threat of subpoena is often sufficient to get Congress information that it needs,” said Pallone. “I did not use the subpoena authority during the last two Congresses.”

Rodgers committed to only using the subpoena authority when necessary. Pallone also tried to strike a requirement that would make minority witnesses appear before the committee in person without a waiver, but that motion failed along a party-line vote.