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Ron Wyden at a September 2012 hearing of the Senate Energy Committee
Sen. Ron Wyden will be taking the helm as chairman of the
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January.
When Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, takes the chairman's reins of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, there are hopes in some quarters that it will usher in an era of cooperation between the Republicans and Democrats on the committee and elsewhere. There is speculation that this could finally move the Senate and maybe even the House of Representatives off the dime on energy policy because Wyden is known, and sometimes criticized, for his hands-across-the-aisle approach to governance. The senator himself speaks of the need to review energy policy in light of of the burgeoning shale oil and gas industry. He speaks of a "transformative energy policy."

That the first major piece of energy legislation since 2007 might emerge from gridlock with Wyden at the helm is partly based on what seems to be mutual admiration between him and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican member of the committee. That was evident at a CQ Roll Call event last Thursday:

“I think it is because of the nature of Sen. Wyden’s leadership and his style and my desire to work a deal,” Murkowski said. “The benefit that we have is we’re both kind of coming at this from the approach of let’s make some things happen here instead of focusing and getting all twisted around in those areas where we disagree.”

Wyden was hopeful in an interview last week. “I’m very upbeat about the prospects of bringing people together just based on the conversations I’ve had with senators on and off the committee,” he said.

Wyden toured Alaskan energy sites with Murkowski in August and came away saying what he would later say after his October tour of Louisiana energy sites with Sen. Mary Landrieu: "we can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all energy policy.”

What precisely a comprehensive energy package might look like wasn't apparent from the vague good-feelings talk at the meeting. Wyden is concerned about U.S. fossil-fuel exports, partly for reasons of "energy independence" and partly because of carbon dioxide emissions, two issues that conflict with one another. He also seems dead set against a carbon tax, a matter that has divided Democrats and Republicans, although any support from the GOP for such a levy is dependent on its being to offset income taxes. At any rate, given that the White House is also reluctant on this score, a carbon tax seems out of the question.

For more than a year, Murkowski has been working on a blueprint for a new policy that she will probably not unveil until January. The plan is likely to be some mix of what we've been hearing for a long time from nearly everyone but environmental advocates: an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, the kind that puts smiles on the faces of fossil-fuel heavy states and provides some money and some lip service to renewable sources. It's not hard to figure out what Murkowski means when she says we need to "streamline" environmental regulations.

Included is likely to be measures to increase oil and gas production, more directives on energy efficiency, an upgrade of the transmission grid, and possibly renewal of tax incentives for the wind, solar and geothermal industries. The key incentive, the production tax credit, expires Dec. 31. That has already cost thousands of jobs in the wind industry as investors shy away from new projects.

The last major piece of federal energy legislation was passed in 2007. It focused on developing biofuels, automobile fuel efficiency and energy efficiency in lighting and public buildings. But the House, then in Democratic hands, passed a bill that included a renewable portfolio standard which would have required utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and would fund renewable energy development with revenue from repealing $21 billion of tax breaks for oil and gas companies. The Senate wouldn't go along. Among the foes was Landrieu.

The 2007 legislation was passed before hydraulic fracking had created the boom in the production of gas and oil from shale rock. Partly as a result, a report from the International Energy Agency last week said the United States will be the largest producer of oil in the world by 2020 and a net exporter by 2030. The boom has already produced about 1.7 million jobs, according to IHS Global, with the possibility of three million by 2030.

For a nation that spends tens of billions of defense dollars each year to protect access to foreign oil, energy "independence" might sound like a good thing. Just one problem: Burning all that oil and gas, even though they produce far fewer carbon emissions that burning coal, pushes the world ever closer to the day when it passes the threshold for increasing average global temperatures past 2° C. Any energy policy that treats that as some tangential factor is reckless myopia.

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Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 10:34 AM PST.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS, DK GreenRoots, and Daily Kos.

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