Energy Policy:

Senate Energy Chairman Ron Wyden previews panel's agenda

How will the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee address liquefied natural gas exports, climate change, natural gas development and nuclear waste storage? During today's OnPoint, Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) previews his panel's agenda and discusses his expectations for areas of potential bipartisanship. He explains how he plans to work with Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on climate change and talks about the future of a comprehensive approach to energy policy.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to a special edition of OnPoint from Capitol Hill, I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today from his office is Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair, Ron Wyden. Mr. Chairman, thank you for talking with me today.

Sen. Ron Wyden: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Mr. Chairman, coming off of the president's State of the Union address where climate and energy played a significant role, how will his directives on climate and energy sort of shape the path that the panel takes?

Sen. Ron Wyden: What I think the president did first and foremost is acknowledge reality, both in terms of the substance and the politics. He was essentially saying that only the Congress has the tools to deal with climate change in the context of the global challenge, and only Congress really has those kinds of tools, for example, to strike the right balance in terms of reducing emissions and also dealing with the fact that we've got to create a lot of high-skill, high-wage jobs in a tough economy.

Monica Trauzzi: In light of your committee's recent hearing on LNG exports and the divisive nature of that discussion, how cautious should the United States be as it proceeds with this idea of exporting LNG?

Sen. Ron Wyden: First of all, I think we ought to recognize it's a challenging topic, but one senator after another, the democrats and republicans said they were really appreciative of the general kind of tone both from the standpoint of colleagues and from the standpoint of witnesses. What I think we're going to do is push very hard to see if we can find on a bipartisan basis what I call a sweet spot, where in effect you can have enough exports to make sure that are producers here at home are in a position to do well; we also want to make sure that there aren't so many exports as to jack up the prices so as to harm the manufacturing renaissance and our consumers; and a big part of this is also about trying to create a more competitive landscape to encourage renewables. Now, if you look at some of the discussions on some of the most contentious issues, Senator Hoven, for example, from North Dakota, which is right at the epicenter of this debate about natural gas, he was talking about concepts. For example, like transparency and more disclosure, in effect federal minimum standard with a very wide birth for the states. When I listened carefully to the discussion he had between himself as a former governor and someone who comes from a part of the country, that lives and sees this day in, day out, and Frances Beinecke, a very well-regarded environmental leader, I just listened to that dialogue, and I said I'm just kinda watching this go to the ear and I think there's some opportunities for common ground, and that would certainly be a real breakthrough on a very challenging issues.

Monica Trauzzi: You've indicated, though, that you're not yet planning on crafting a legislation on LNG exports, but can we expect something in terms of policy during this session? What kind of timeline are you looking at on policy?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I think the gas issue is potentially an enormous American success story, something that's good for jobs, can reduce the trade deficit, lower emissions. There's a chance here, done thoughtfully, to produce a really extraordinary American success story. So there may be aspects of this that require legislation, there may be aspects of this that don't. And so what we're going to do is start to work with the various stakeholders that follow this issue. That's kind of Washington language, but I'm going to be having town meetings, for example, this weekend, in Oregon, across our state, and I'm going to be asking Oregonians what they think about it. And as you know, we've got two areas that are interested in LNG exports. So I would just say on the basis of a hearing that showed a lot of thoughtful judgments being made by various groups about what it would take to produce something that makes sense for the country, I think there's a lot to work with here.

Monica Trauzzi: So there's certainly been some giant leaps in the production of natural gas, but there's a potential here for investments in other sectors to be stymied, sectors like renewables, energy efficiency, CCS, nuclear, do you see that as an issue, and if so, what are you planning to do about it?

Sen. Ron Wyden: What I do hope we can do is look at natural gas in the context of how it can create a more competitive landscape for our country and energy policy generally. For example, we really didn't get into transportation, largely because we didn't have time. But certainly there's a real opportunity as it relates to the fleets in natural gas, and I'm really coming to think of this in the context of what I hope will one day be the filling station of the future. And notice I'm not calling it just a gas station in the traditional kind of context, but a filling station that would allow the consumer to have a whole variety of choices in terms of energy that they could use, all of them, in effect, having to compete for the consumer's dollar, and that again would use marketplace forces to produce the most value for our people.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's switch gears. You've long been supportive of addressing climate change. Take your committee chairman hat off for a moment and tell me what is your ideal policy prescription for addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.?

Sen. Ron Wyden: First of all, I want people to understand that every single time we can take a strong initiative in the area of renewable power, I see that putting points on the board for the agenda to try to deal with climate change. For example, Senator Murkowski and I had a chance to go up to Alaska recently and meet with her constituents. We're very interested in areas like biomass, we're interested in geothermal, we're interested in hydropower. These are all areas of renewable power that have gotten short shrift and you just haven't heard even as much about them as you've heard about wind and solar, two other areas that I support aggressively. So when you have the opportunity, and we'll have that, the House passed a bill on hydropower here recently, Senator Murkowski and I have been working together on that on the Senate side, when you can put points on the board in terms of expanding the opportunities for renewable energy, every one of those efforts is something that helps to reduce the problems we're facing with respect to climate change. It's one of the reasons we ought to get it right in terms of natural gas. We've heard authoritative sources say for the first time CO2 emissions have gone down in years, and a big junk of that is due to natural gas replacing other facilities that were dirtier. So there are a variety of ways to attack this.

Monica Trauzzi: So then do you believe that there shouldn't be this grand bargain or this massive piece of legislation on climate change, that we should address it in sort of these little snippets?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I certainly wouldn't support doing everything I can to promote a low-carbon economy, I wouldn't call that a little snippet. I would call that an important piece of the equation. I said earlier that I do think that there's an important role for looking at this in a global kind of context. That's what I'm going to work through with various members of the committee, and I think it's got to be done in a bipartisan way if you're going to deal with an issue that's that important.

Monica Trauzzi: And there's a sense, talking about bipartisan, that you and Senator Murkowski have a great relationship, and she said that climate change is important to her. But in her recent energy roadmap, she didn't seem to propose measures that would actually reduce emissions. So do you think that there's some room for her to move on that?

Sen. Ron Wyden: Well, I'm going to let her speak for herself, but when you look at the booklet, there are a lot of areas that I think provide opportunities for common ground. I talked about renewable power. The strong focus, for example, on innovation and technology came up just briefly at the hearing, but energy storage is a transformative part of this debate, because particularly renewable energy, cleaner renewable energy, wind and solar, the linchpin there, because it's intermittent power, is energy storage. Those are the kinds of technologies I think you're going to see the two of us work together on. It could be good for the economy and good for the climate.

Monica Trauzzi: Senators Boxer and Sanders just released major climate legislation. How will you work with Chairwoman Boxer and the EPW committee on the issue of emissions reduction?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I intend to work very closely with both of them. As you know, Senator Sanders is a very valuable member of our committee. Again, you look at some of what he has championed in terms of efficiency and installation, these are I think again natural areas for a bipartisanship. Senator Boxer and I are part of the leadership team for the climate clearinghouse here in the United States Senate, to try to get good ideas out and get senators involved in offering their suggestions. So I intend to work very closely with both of them.

Monica Trauzzi: Nuclear waste storage is something that has not successfully advanced in Congress for many years. What are your plans on that front?

Sen. Ron Wyden: There were four of us in the Senate who had a very good meeting, two Democrats and two Republicans from the committees of jurisdiction, and I was very much encouraged by the discussion. And we left it that we were going to try to have a draft approach with respect to nuclear waste available very quickly. My sense is there a couple of sort of threshold questions. One, I indicated that I would be open to an interim storage facility, and the key, of course, is to tie it to the health and safety questions to deal with those areas that are most important in terms of the health and safety perspective. Now, there are other issues that are going to come up, Yucca Mountain obviously being one. What I'm going to try to say, because I know many senators and House members have questions about this, and I respect that there can be differences of opinion, and I think the real issue for me is that a number of scientists are trying to make the point that however you feel on Yucca Mountain, it's pretty clear you're going to need more than one permanent facility, and that may be an opportunity for some common ground.

Monica Trauzzi: Many folks in our space would contend that the United States needs a comprehensive energy strategy, a big energy bill to move, but it doesn't seem like something like that would be politically possible. Are you trying to move in that direction at all, or will you continue to focus on smaller bills as the strategy moving forward?

Sen. Ron Wyden: Well, when you talk about natural gas, it's hard to say that is a small initiative. In other words, we've talked about everything from environmental practices to transmission and transportation issues and export issues. That would be a major policy initiative that I think could contribute enormously to our economy and our trade deficit and the environment. Part of this is a little bit of the semantics in Washington D.C., is practically every couple of years you see a hue and cry, "It's time to pass a comprehensive energy bill," and there's a lot of effort thrown into it and tremendous passion. As I always say, those debates, you can always tell they're real when voices get raised and doors get slammed. And eventually you pass a, quote, "comprehensive" energy bill. And then you go a couple more years and everybody says, "Oh my goodness, we've got to pass a comprehensive energy bill," and everyone starts to huff and puff about doing it again. What I'd like to be able to do is to say on our watch we dealt with a number of important issues, and the reason that we chose, and Senator Murkowski and I did this together, I'm chair, I work very closely, as you've suggested, in partnership with her, we thought it made sense to go with natural gas out of the gate because it really constitutes the opportunity, if done well, done in a bipartisan way, constitutes an opportunity for a great American success story with benefits for the climate and the economy and so many other areas.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the biggest areas of disagreement between you and Senator Murkowski?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I'm not going to spend my time talking about the ways in which people want to see us duke it out. I think what we're trying to focus on are the many areas where there's common ground. For example, right after the break, the two of us are going to introduce the first bipartisan campaign finance reform bill almost in a decade to really for the first time deal with the social welfare organizations that get tax breaks for electioneering and don't even disclose, and really say on a bipartisan basis, we want all major sources of money disclosed. That's not a small issue either. That is not what I'd call a snippet of public policy. That's a major issue. So I think that what we're going to try to do, and we've touched on a number of the areas here, climate and natural gas and the question of nuclear waste, these are major policy areas, and if we can come up with some practical fresh approaches that can win support on both sides of the aisle and get'm through the Senate, we'll be interested in talking to our colleagues in the House. And in fact, we've already been over to talk to House leaders, and I hope those talks show that people are serious about working together.

Monica Trauzzi: How much of a partisan divide exists on your panel, and what are your plans for sort of wrangling all of those differing views and opinions and getting some policy written?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I think about my time being on the Energy Committee, and I've been on the committee for more than a decade, and I've never seen a time when more senators on both sides of the aisle want to get things done. There was a lot of frustration in the last session, and part of it, Jeff Bingaman, who was chair before me, terrific, thoughtful legislative plan, arguably about as tough a hand as I've ever seen, because the combination of cap-and-trade going down in the House, and Solyndra and some others, a very tough situation to walk into. So then you have an election, and elections are in effect a renewal, and I think we're walking in now, Senator Murkowski and I, to a time when a lot of senators both on the committee and off want to get things done. This is an important issue. There's a clear connection to affordable, safe energy and economic growth and I'm just struck by the number of senators on the committee and off the committee who want to get things done.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned former Chairman Bingaman. He was a major proponent of a clean energy standard, what are your views on the role that this type of policy should play in the United States, and do you plan to move a CES?

Sen. Ron Wyden: I was a cosponsor of the Bingaman legislation, and if you recall back to the hearing that we had, I said one of the areas that I thought might produce some more opportunities for bipartisanship is to say that there could be a broader role for the states in terms of carrying it out. In other words, when you look at the architecture, particularly a federal environmental policy, land and air and water, and this came up to some extent at the hearing on natural gas, there is a lot of history of saying, "Look, here's where you've gotta be." Here's the federal minimum standard and then underneath that standard you have a wide birth for the states in terms of how you would go about attaining that federal standard. And I think that something like that might be a feature that would bring people together on those kinds of issues, again whether it's clean energy standard or other policies.

Monica Trauzzi: In his State of the Union address, the president did not address clean coal as one of the "all of the above" energy sources that should play a part in our long term energy policy. What's your view on the role that clean coal should play?

Sen. Ron Wyden: Well, I'm anxious particularly to work with a number of colleagues on the committee who have both constituents who understand this, live it day in and day out. We made a change in our committees. Public Lands and Forest will now be Public Lands, Forest and Mining, chaired by Senator Mansion from West Virginia. Senator Murkowski and I went to West Virginia with Senator Mansion earlier, and I think that again there are a number of issues that we ought to be looking at. And of course research into carbon sequestration is one area that comes to mind. That's something I heard about when I went to West Virginia with Senator Mansion, and I know his subcommittee is going to look at these issues.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll end it there, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for your time.

Sen. Ron Wyden: Thanks for having me.

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