Energy Policy

GOP Sen. Alexander talks energy bill politics, offshore drilling, judicial battles

Natural gas is a clean fossil fuel, but prices are going up and supplies are going down. This year's energy bill is likely to contain proposals to expand domestic exploration for natural gas on land and offshore. Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander joins OnPoint to discuss his proposal to allow more offshore drilling, how the energy bill is shaping up, and whether battles over judicial nominees will sidetrack passage of major legislation.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Senator Lamar Alexander, a key Republican figure in the Senate energy bill process and Ben Geman, reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Senator thanks for joining us.

Lamar Alexander: Glad to be here.

Colin Sullivan: You just introduced a wide ranging natural gas bill in an effort to kind of shape the natural gas portion of the energy bill. Can you tell us how will this bill specifically lower prices as opposed to legislation from last year?

Lamar Alexander: Well, prices are $7, the highest in the industrial world. In last year's bill we only talked a little bit about energy efficiency and we authorized an Alaska gas pipeline. In this year's bill we're much more comprehensive, much stronger energy efficiency, aggressive support for alternative fuels, aggressive support for research and development, aggressive support for more supply and aggressive support for making it easier to import natural gas from overseas.

Colin Sullivan: So what specifically will make it, make prices lower on the natural gas front that's --

Lamar Alexander: All those things. Every single one of those will make, I mean, R&D will produce for example, gas hydrates, which we have but aren't cost efficient. Support for coal gasification will provide a substitute fuel which will tend to lower the price. Drilling, if Virginia decides to drill offshore for gas, that's more supply, that lowers the price. We could cut out the need for 39 more power plants, gas power plants, if we adopted as aggressive a conservation program as California did a couple of years ago.

Colin Sullivan: Now you mentioned drilling off the coast of Virginia, one of the things your bill does is it allows states to lift those offshore moratoria. Now doesn't this intrude on the federal right, the federal control over the outer continental shelf specifically?

Lamar Alexander: Well, no, it doesn't because the federal government will be making this decision. Right now we have offshore drilling off the coast of Texas and Louisiana and Alabama, and states may get revenues from the drilling they do near to the coastline. This simply gives a state the option, under federal supervision, of deciding that it might want to do drilling for gas, far out to sea where you couldn't see the rigs, and then it might use the money to improve the university or lower taxes and we'd get the gas, which would lower our gas prices in the United States.

Ben Geman: You mentioned Virginia, senator, do you think any other states would be interested in having the offshore moratoria, on their shores lifted?

Lamar Alexander: I guess we'll have to wait, if we had a coastline I would do it in a minute. Florida, for example, will probably be faced with a choice of, in the next few years, of whether they want to drill for gas offshore where they can't see the rigs or have a state income tax.

Ben Geman: Do you get a sense of, I mean, in the last energy process, in the last energy bill process, even getting something akin to an inventory of outer continental shelf resources proved politically to be impossible. Your bill will go quite a bit further senator and actually allow the moratoria to be lifted. Does that stand any chance of getting anywhere?

Lamar Alexander: Well, I hope so. That's why I introduced it, but you're exactly right, people have been unwilling to discuss this. We have people who advocate putting big 100-yard-tall windmills up, which I think scar the landscape. It'd take 45 square miles of windmills, which would scar the landscape, to equal one gas well that you couldn't see. So I think once people stop and take a look and particularly when they consider what $7 gas prices are doing to blue collar workers, sending jobs overseas and what they're doing to farmers, giving them a 10 percent pay cut already. What they're doing to home heating, people are going to say, let's take a look at it.

Ben Geman: Do you think that, has there been any discussions with Governor Schwarzenegger or Governor Bush about the issue?

Lamar Alexander: I haven't.

Ben Geman: Senator Domenici has mentioned that your bill is very sprawling and very large and that certain components of your legislation would be attached to the comprehensive energy bill. Do you know which provisions in particular might make it into the comprehensive bill?

Lamar Alexander: We don't know yet. Pete Domenici's chairman of the Energy Committee and my whole goal here is race a lot of issues that were really raised last year in a very comprehensive aggressive way. Give them a hearing and then let's see what can make its way into the energy bill. A lot of that will depend on how Senator Domenici wants to proceed.

Colin Sullivan: What kind of response are you getting from Democrats so far? Tim Johnson signed on, but are there any other Democratic cosponsors?

Lamar Alexander: Well I should have already mentioned Tim Johnson, the senator from South Dakota. He is the lead Democratic cosponsor and a number of Senators, on both sides, are looking at it. It's a big bill, 250 pages, a lot of provisions that aren't always discussed. So I hope that we'll have additional cosponsors. I don't want to be a United States senator sitting here 10 years from now with a million chemical company manufacturing jobs gone overseas and somebody asking me, "What did you do?" and I didn't do anything about it.

Colin Sullivan: Moving on to climate change. You're also a cosponsor of Chuck Hagel's climate change bill, which he introduced recently on Capitol Hill. Some critics say it doesn't go far enough because it doesn't address carbon dioxide in a mandatory fashion. You think it's time to address CO2 in a mandatory fashion?

Lamar Alexander: I do and I've cosponsored the Carper bill which puts modest controls on power plants, keeps them at about the 2001 level. But I think Senator Hagel's bill is a very good bill. It really does a constructive thing. The solution to clean air is clean energy. So research and development, so that we can find out how to turn coal into gas and then burn the gas to make power, that helps remove a lot of the pollutants and then if we can find out how to recapture the carbon, which some companies are beginning to do now. BP told me it was doing it in the North Atlantic. If we can do that we can have plenty of clean energy because we have a lot of coal and we can do it and we can burn it and clean the air.

Colin Sullivan: The climate seems to be changing on this, no pun intended, the climate on climate change, but Duke Energy, last week, announced that they would support a tax on carbon dioxide. Do you think the climate in the Senate is coming around so that you can actually move a climate change bill through the Senate?

Lamar Alexander: We'll see. There's growing concern and understanding about the importance of dealing with carbon and dealing with climate change. We don't want to, I for one, don't want to it abruptly without knowing more about what we're doing, which is why I agreed to take a modest step on caps, support research, as in the Hagel bill, encourage alternative fuels like coal gasification. That's as far as I'm able to go right now and I suspect many other senators feel the same way.

Colin Sullivan: Now do you feel like there's a problem within the Republican caucus, specifically you've got John McCain on one side advancing a pretty aggressive climate change bill and then you've got Senator Jim Inhofe on the other, still questioning the science behind global warming? I mean, how do you come to a consensus within the Republican Party or is that good for climate change?

Lamar Alexander: Well it's a good debate. I mean one of the good things about our party, I think, is that a lot of the important debates are conducted within our caucus. I think Senator Voinovich, who did a real good job trying to get a clean air compromise, said of one of our Republican senators, said he thinks it's the most important thing in the world, climate control, and the other one thinks it's a Communist conspiracy. So we do have that broad range of opinion, most of the rest of us are somewhere in between.

Ben Geman: Stepping back to the comprehensive energy bill, there's been some rumors lately that, staff or not, that there's been some difficult relations within the Energy Committee. On the other hand, Senator Domenici has said that he wants to have a much more sort of inclusive and bipartisan process this time. Which of those two things is true or are both true?

Lamar Alexander: Well, I think the mood is better this year than last year. Senator Domenici has said, publicly, that in the last session we didn't, the Republicans and the Democrats didn't work as well together, senators and staff, as he would like and he wanted to start out differently. He and Senator Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico, have been working together on our coal roundtables, our gas roundtables. I know I had a good meeting with Senator Dorgan, who is the ranking Democrat of the subcommittee on energy which I chair. We have some things we disagree about, but we have more we agree about. We agree about the importance of hydrogen. We agree about coal gasification. We agree about the urgency of the issue, so we need legislation that starts with what we agree about. Then we can shoot it out on the handful of things we disagree about.

Ben Geman: Well, one of the big disagreements of course has been MTBE. Is that going to sink the energy bill again? It proved such a stumbling block last time.

Lamar Alexander: Well I hope not. It did last time and the House insistence on a provision killed the bill with some members of the Republican caucus. So we're not going to start by trying to solve MTBE. I hope we start with aggressive conservation, aggressive alternative fuels, aggressive supply, aggressive research and development and then if we have a compelling bill at a time when oil prices are high and gas prices are the highest in the industrialized world, maybe we can work out MTBE.

Colin Sullivan: Speaking of MTBE, there's been some press lately that indicates that the White House is perhaps not as engaged on Capitol Hill as it should be in terms of congressional liaisons. Do you think the White House needs to be more engaged to get this energy bill through? Is that part of the problem?

Lamar Alexander: I don't have any criticism of the White House right now. The House is, should be moving to markup an energy bill this week. We've been working pretty hard in the Senate, may begin as early as May, to markup an energy bill. That's up to Senator Domenici, but that's what I hear. That's moving pretty rapidly so I think the White House is probably watching and letting us do what we're supposed to do. It's up to us after all to produce an energy bill, not the White House.

Colin Sullivan: Has there been a more urgent message from the White House lately given the high run up in gas prices specifically?

Lamar Alexander: There's been a more urgent message from home. I mean, we have a lot of workers in Tennessee who don't want their jobs going overseas. We have a lot of people who are driving cars, paying high prices for gas. I think that's a good message and one which I hope the Congress hears.

Colin Sullivan: You mentioned Clear Skies earlier as well, is Clear Skies dead for the year?

Lamar Alexander: I hope not.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think it still has a chance?

Lamar Alexander: I hope not. Senator Voinovich of Ohio was making real good progress I thought. For example, I supported the Carper bill, which went further faster than the administration's Clear Skies bill. But then Senator Voinovich, who's willing to amend the administration bill so that it, as an example, move the cap on SOX, sulfur dioxide, down to nearly the point of the Carper bill. I thought that was real good progress and that makes the most difference to me because we've got a real tough clean air problem and visibility problem in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Tennessee.

Colin Sullivan: Does that bill need to address carbon dioxide to get some Democrats on the committee onboard?

Lamar Alexander: I would prefer that it did, as one senator, but I don't think it has to in order to be a good clean air bill. There's a lot we could do on research and development, on alternatives to oil and I think if we had a strong bill on mercury, nitrogen and sulfur that that would be a good clean air bill and then we could have a separate strong bill on carbon.

Ben Geman: Switching gears for a moment senator, there's been a lot of discussion about the possibility that Senator Frist would attempt to remove the filibuster of judicial nominees. Would you support such a measure?

Lamar Alexander: I haven't decided to yet. I'm working hard to see if I can suggest ways that we can avoid that train wreck. I have suggested, on the Senate floor two years ago and then this year, that I give up my right to filibuster a president's nominee, including a Democrat's president's nominee and I invited some of my Democratic colleagues to do the same. So far there hasn't been any great outpouring of support. I worked in the Senate when there were 36 Republican senators. I worked again, in 1977, when there were 38 Republican senators, so defending minority rights isn't always defending Democratic rights. Having said that, if the Democrats insist on denying President Bush an up-and-down vote on his appellate nominees, including his Supreme Court justice nominees, I feel pretty confident that the Senate will change the rule, which it has a clear right to do and if we're provoked that way, I'll vote for it.

Ben Geman: Isn't there a chance though that that would simply poison relations to the point where efforts such as your natural gas legislation would become completely frozen in place?

Lamar Alexander: Well, I suppose it might. That would be up to the Democratic minority. I mean, if they want to try to shut down the government, which some have said they would, I think that would be bad for the country and I believe that for them. The last prominent politician who threatened to shut down the government was Newt Gingrich about 10 years ago and he was gone in about a year.

Colin Sullivan: There's been a lot of press lately about the so-called overactive judiciary as well. What do you think about that, is the judiciary in this country over, is there an active judiciary, is that a problem?

Lamar Alexander: Yes, in some cases there is and I've introduced legislation with Mark Pryor, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, to make it easier for example for governors to amend federal court consent decrees. That doesn't sound like a big issue, but it's a huge issue. There are hundreds of these around the country. They're outdated. What it means is federal judges are running state foster care programs, state Medicaid programs, state school programs from the federal courts based on consent decrees that were entered into 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and in the case of Tennessee, 25 years ago. In a democracy, those decisions need to be made by elected officials.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think it's appropriate for the House majority leader to weigh in on that subject? You made some comments recently.

Lamar Alexander: To weigh in on activist judges?

Colin Sullivan: Judicial nominations, activist judges.

Lamar Alexander: Well sure.

Colin Sullivan: Taking that a step further, there's been a lot of attention to Tom Delay recently. Christopher Shay has, over the weekend, called for him to step down. Senator Rick Santorum said that the charges need to be taken seriously. Do you think that Tom Delay needs to step down?

Lamar Alexander: I think it's up to the House members to elect their own leaders.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think it's appropriate for Rick Santorum to weigh in on that subject?

Lamar Alexander: I think Rick Santorum is a grownup and he can say whatever he likes.

Ben Geman: I think we might be starting to run a little short on time. Senator, you ran for president in 1996. Is that something you would consider doing again?

Lamar Alexander: No, I wouldn't. I enjoyed it. I'm glad I did it, but I'm over that. I'm a little surprised to be in the United States Senate at this point, but I'm enjoying it.

Colin Sullivan: So, for the short term, for the future you'll be in the Senate?

Lamar Alexander: Yes. I just was elected two-and-a-half years ago. I'm enjoying on working on education and energy. I'm enjoying reminding my colleagues that we were elected back in 1994, or at least a lot of them were, promising no more unfunded federal mandates and that applies to Republicans as well as Democrats. So it's a good time to be in the Senate. There's a lot to do.

Colin Sullivan: Senator Alexander thanks for being here today. We appreciate it.

Lamar Alexander: Thank you for the invitation.

Colin Sullivan: Come back tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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