Sen. John Hickenlooper questions an expert panel on rising oil prices in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Nov. 16, 2021. (Screenshot)
Days after global leaders agreed for the first time to decrease coal usage and subsidies for fossil fuels, U.S. senators battled over rising gasoline prices and urged action on the high cost of energy — including by increasing production of coal, oil and gas.
The Tuesday hearing, led by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), showed the difficulty President Joe Biden and more liberal congressional Democrats will have in enacting climate policies to meet the goals of the international community.
That includes those agreed to in Glasgow, Scotland, during a pivotal climate conference earlier this month.
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Manchin, who is considered the most conservative Senate Democrat and has strong ties to West Virginia’s coal industry, opened the hearing by saying he wanted to achieve energy reliability and affordability, while “also achieving our decarbonization goals.”
He later questioned if mandates to limit production of fossil fuels would lead to carbon reductions. He said he instead favors advances in technology like carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon.
“You cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner climate,” Manchin said. “We have got to innovate.”
Republicans on the committee sought to blame the Biden administration for inflation that has included rising gasoline prices.
“What Joe Biden did in Glasgow was beg OPEC plus Russia to sell more energy and produce more oil for the United States to buy,” said ranking Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. “This is going to bring Europe’s energy prices to the United States.”
Stephen Nalley, the acting administrator for the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said the price increases were a result of an economic recovery after a pandemic-caused downturn. Demand for energy rebounded before production, Nalley said.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Biden was being unfairly blamed for energy prices. Economic fundamentals and the uneven recovery that Nalley cited were reasonable explanations.
“There’s one law that this Congress can’t repeal: the law of supply and demand,” King said.
Nalley said he expected prices to remain consistent through the winter before a possible drop next year.
At the close of the U.N. conference Saturday, nearly 200 countries agreed to a document that includes a pledge to “phase-down unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”
That language was weakened from an earlier draft that used “phase-out” instead of “phase-down,” but it still represented the first mention of fossil fuel subsidies or coal in an international agreement, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry said at a Saturday news conference.
Kerry tweeted that the agreement gave the U.S. “a clear path to achieve our 2030 goals. We are closer than ever before to avoiding climate chaos, and securing cleaner air, safer water, and a healthier planet for us all.”
But the agreement is nonbinding, and reaching its goals — and those of other international climate agreements like the Paris Accords that set a target to hold average warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — depend on each nation taking individual actions.
The focus at Tuesday’s Senate panel showed there will continue to be political obstacles to enacting climate policies in the U.S.
While Kerry in Glasgow predicted the end of coal production by 2030, Nalley said his agency projected coal would be at about 75 percent of current levels in 2050.
Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper asked the panel how policymakers can act to “help keep both energy prices and greenhouse gas quantities low in the long run.”
“A lot of political hay has been made of President Biden’s pushing OPEC to increase oil production in light of our nation’s climate goals,” Hickenlooper said. “In my view, I think there’s a worldview that incorporates both.”
Tim Gould, the chief energy economist with the Paris-based International Energy Agency, told Hickenlooper that governments could be doing more to reduce demand for oil and other fossil fuels.
“Clearly, there’s a lot that can be done on the demand side,” Gould said, pointing to energy-efficiency measures, alternative fuels and emerging technologies like electric vehicles.
Such demand-side measures, including EV tax credits, are a central component of Democrats’ $1.85 trillion social spending and climate plan that could receive a House vote this week. Republicans blasted the bill in Tuesday’s hearing.
Clearly, there's a lot that can be done on the demand side.
– Tim Gould, chief energy economist with the International Energy Agency
Republicans on the panel made several references to price spikes in Europe, where natural gas prices rose this year to 39 times the rate in 2020, according to Gould.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said Europe moved too quickly away from coal and nuclear energy.
“Europe is the movie trailer for the United States if we continue down the path of destroying traditional, made-in-America energy,” he said.
But Gould said Nordic countries with greater hydropower and other renewable sources experienced less extreme rises in energy costs, while those with greater shares of their energy coming from coal and natural gas saw the worst price spikes.
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