Using a 'small ball' strategy on energy issues

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Watchful energy policy observers are having a hard time getting their arms around the approach being taken by Alaska Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiWriting in Mike Pence won’t do any good in these states GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump campaign left out of Alaska voter guide MORE (R), chairman of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, to address the nation's energy challenges. Traditionalists, who are used to seeing legislators attempt to move comprehensive — often mammoth — legacy bills, are questioning Murkowski's strategy of tackling urgent issues in a thoughtful, methodical and individual manner.

What they should be asking is: Why no one has used a "small ball" strategy previously? More often than not, comprehensive bills get bogged down by their own weight and the fact that they offer something for everyone to dislike and vote against. Murkowski, in her wisdom, is taking to heart the old joke about how one eats an elephant: one bite at a time.

Murkowski deserves credit for not trying to move a legacy bill that attempts to answer every energy question or reopens issues for which a consensus has previously been achieved. The fact is that energy is a complicated, diverse and dynamic issue and getting more so by the year; multiple industries function under its umbrella and every issue does not need to be re-litigated on a regular basis.

Trying to solve oil and gas issues in the same bill that addresses grid management, electricity reliability, methane hydrates and host of other issues is a recipe for congressional gridlock. What we don't want is an energy bill that becomes the catchall vehicle for every special interest provision. Rather, we want to apply the lessons we've learned during the implementation of past legislation to address today's timely issues in a way that relevant stakeholders can engage through a process that welcomes open debate and discussion.

We also need to recognize that the landscape has changed in fairly dramatic ways in recent years. In spite of good intentions and specific language, the government is hamstrung to site an electrical transmission line, or for that matter approve a pipeline, in a reasonable amount of time. There has also been a monumental shift in how America generates electricity, including a move to renewables, more natural gas and less coal; and from where, including solar on rooftops.

Change is not only afoot at home, but overseas. Who would have thought just a few years ago that in 2015, we would be dealing with an oversupply of oil and gas and discussing the nation's ability to export in this time of abundance? Because of this, it's important that we build consensus around how and when we begin trading our oil and gas. We also need to address future resources such as methane hydrates, which are frozen at the bottom of the sea; they hold promise but government support for research and development is needed.

From a pure process perspective, Murkowski is being realistic about what can get done in the Senate, given current ratios, and the fact that we are rapidly moving into a presidential election season where energy will take a front seat among the issues debated, amid the frenzy of activity by outside interest groups that can raise the decibel level with a moment's notice on the smallest of provisions and impose their will on skittish lawmakers, turning a non-issue into a perceived controversy.

The chairman is also seeking greater transparency. Previous bills have been hundreds of pages long, with obscure language tucked throughout the text. Currently, just one of the 19 bills she has introduced exceeds nine pages; several are less than five, allowing everyone to read and discuss the merits of what's been proposed.

Murkowski has also created a framework to best identify where consensus exists and where it needs to be found. For example, there is probably not a lot of controversy over methane hydrate research and development legislation. Enabling states to receive offshore oil and gas royalties, however, has proven to be a heavy lift in the past; perhaps, without state revenues being wrapped in to a mega-bill, there can be a more extensive discussion on the issue and common ground found.

Finally, the senator is committed to fixing what's broken, adding new language to address emerging issues and leaving the rest of the elephant alone. 

It's a smart approach.

Maddox is a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy. He is a fellow at the American Action Forum and a consultant with the Livingston Group.