Senate energy panel members open to carbon plan, Whitfield less so

A top Democrat and Republican on energy matters in the Senate left the door open to compromise on a potential carbon tax, but a top Republican House energy leader seemed less receptive during a Nov. 15 seminar in Washington, D.C.

The next chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and the ranking Republican on that panel, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both embraced compromise and at least left the door open for a carbon tax.

But Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky, who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Power within the House Energy & Commerce Committee, was more cautious. Whitfield said most House GOP lawmakers won’t embrace a carbon tax “until we have a lot more details than what we know now,” Whitfield said.

The congressional leaders made their comments during a CQ/Roll Call seminar sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). During the seminar, which was webcast, Whitfield appeared later than the senators and was not on hand to hear their comments.

Whitfield, did, however, note he is a former Washington, D.C., neighbor of Wyden and has collaborated with him on legislation in the past. Wyden is set to succeed Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The New Mexico Democrat is retiring.

Whitfield said it makes little sense for energy-related panels to pass bills that have scant chance of gaining majority support in the opposite chamber.

Wyden, Murkowski ‘love-fest’ touted cooperation

Some subsequent speakers in the two-hour seminar described the joint appearance by Wyden and Murkowski as something of a “love-fest” by the two veteran lawmakers.

“I am going to extend my hand because we are going to work together,” Murkowski said as she and Wyden shook hands.

Murkowski indicated that some type of carbon tax might be a more realistic way to address climate change than the unwieldy “cap-and-trade” proposals. The Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” featured cap-and-trade as its centerpiece. It passed the then Democrat-controlled House in 2009 but never passed the Senate.

Hurricane Sandy and the so-called “fiscal cliff” have sparked talk that a carbon tax could merit congressional consideration. But Murkowski noted that any carbon tax proposal must be considered mostly for “environmental responsibility” and not revenue generation.

As for the GOP: “We need to show a level of environmental responsibility that is in conjunction to where young people are coming from,” Murkowski said. At the same time, young people “also need a decent job,” Murkowski said.

Wyden agreed that any energy policy must strike a balance. “It’s not really an energy speech” unless lawmakers “say they say are for ‘all of the above’ at least four times,” Wyden said.

Wyden and Murkowski agreed that thousands of jobs could be at risk if there is not a short-term extension of the production tax credit that benefits wind. Both senators also said that a long-term, detailed review of energy subsidies is needed in the future.

For Wyden’s part, he suggested that traditional fossil fuels seem to currently get the bulk of the subsidies while more renewable energy sources receive “the crumbs.”

At the same time, Wyden realizes that resource-extraction areas of the country don’t want to turn into “ghost towns.”

Whitfield talks EPA regulation, Yucca Mountain

In the House, Whitfield said his panel’s biggest accomplishment in the just-concluding Congress has been putting the brakes on some U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

“Not that we stopped a lot of them, but we delayed a lot of them,” Whitfield said. The Kentucky Republican said federal appeals court rejection of certain EPA standards proposed for coal plants indicate the extent of the EPA “over-reach” during the Obama administration.

Whitfield also said that the Obama administration erred by turning away from plans for the national nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. “I personally believe we would be better off if we just go ahead and finish Yucca Mountain,” Whitfield said.

“That was one of the mistakes made by Sen. Harry Reid and others,” Whitfield said. Reid, D-Nev., is the Senate majority leader.

Nuclear energy came up again after all the lawmakers left the stage. Environmental Defense Fund Senior Director Elgie Holstein said much of the environmental community still has major concerns about nuclear power but is no longer “reflexively” opposed to it.

The EDF official indicated, however, that waste and financial concerns could keep nuclear from growing as a low-carbon option.

PSEG Power President and COO William Levis said he would have liked to see the lawmakers better define what they mean as “all of the above.” Over the years, the Public Service Enterprise Group (NYSE: PEG) subsidiary has seen its coal, gas and nuclear resources deemed “least cost” options at one time or another.

So Levis said he is skeptical that anybody can accurately predict the energy future. But all panelists were encouraged to see a recent International Energy Agency report that said the United States is on the brink of achieving energy independence.

Exelon (NYSE: EXC) Senior Vice President for Government Affairs David Brown said the weak economy has suppressed energy demand for power providers at the same time there has been a growing degree of subsidies for certain types of generation.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at