By Michael Brooks
The hearing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held Tuesday was perhaps less noteworthy for what was said than the fact it even happened.
Chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), committee members and panelists discussed the electricity industry’s role in mitigating climate change. According to ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), it was the first hearing the committee had held on climate change since 2012.
Compared to the House of Representatives, now in Democratic hands and holding almost weekly hearings on climate change, the GOP-controlled Senate has been nearly silent on the phenomenon. (See House Democrats Put Climate Change Front and Center.) That will change as Senate Democrats up their rhetoric and make it a central platform of their 2020 re-election campaigns, as The New York Times reported Monday.
Tuesday’s hearing, however, lacked partisan rancor. Instead, the few senators who attended and the panelists focused on increased investment in research and development of new technologies to make generating resources cleaner and more efficient.
This was in part because of the committee’s jurisdiction: It does not oversee EPA nor does it have direct oversight of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Those are under the charge of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
“I think it’s important to point out, we know here on the committee we have jurisdiction in certain areas,” Murkowski said. “We do not have complete jurisdiction over climate change — we recognize that — but we do have a role to play in developing reasonable policies that can draw bipartisan support that I think will be a pragmatic contribution to the overall discussion.”
But the homes of the committee’s leaders also played a large role in what was discussed. Murkowski, who opened the hearing with a list of adverse effects being felt by Alaska — including rapidly decreasing Bering Sea ice and a more challenging Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — has broken away from her party in even discussing the issue. Manchin, who frequently sides with Republicans on the committee, criticized regulations as a solution, saying they disproportionately hurt rural residents and coal miners, like those in West Virginia.
“Therefore, the path to a climate solution must offer West Virginians opportunity — not additional economic burdens,” Manchin said. “Chairman Murkowski and I share a deep concern for our rural communities and seek to use this committee as a means of identifying and legislating pathways to ensure our constituents have a role in the clean energy future.”
Manchin said the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity is “not going away anytime soon” and noted China and India are increasing the use of coal. Kenneth Medlock, senior director at Rice University’s Center for Energy Studies, put an exclamation mark on Manchin’s point by noting China has 254 GW of coal-fired capacity under construction — more than the entire U.S. coal fleet.
“So … when we think about CO2 being a problem of the global commons, it really means we need to lead by example,” Medlock said.
Manchin jumped in, asserting that the U.S. has led by example, mandating technologies such as scrubbers and low-NOx boilers. “They’re not implementing any of those,” he said.
Medlock replied his point was that the U.S. needs to lead in innovation, such as developing scalable carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a technology seen as key to reducing emissions and even potentially reversing climate change. He noted federal R&D spending has been declining for the last 30 years “and that doesn’t make any sense.”
Susan Tierney, senior adviser at Analysis Group, said, “China is actually an unsung story on a lot of innovations,” building advanced reactors and wind turbines.
“The U.S. needs to continue to advance technology leadership … so we don’t lose to them on these competitive technologies,” she said.
Notably absent from the hearing was EPW Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who last month reintroduced the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act. The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, would fund CCS R&D and create a board of experts to oversee projects under development.