Getting natural gas right a priority

As the seventh chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I could not be more excited to step up to the challenge of strengthening U.S. energy policy. 

It’s been five years since Congress last passed a major energy bill. Over that time, natural-gas prices have dropped nearly in half, the amount of wind power installed here has more than doubled to 50 gigawatts and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have actually fallen. Most significantly, the goal of U.S. energy independence has gone from being a pipe dream to something that experts are predicting will become reality in just a few years. 

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But despite these positive developments, the U.S. has critical decisions to make in the next few years. How will it address the newly accessible reserves of shale gas? How can government encourage the continued growth of cleaner sources of power? What is the best way to fund research into innovative energy sources of the future while safeguarding taxpayer dollars? 

Looming over all of those decisions is the threat of climate change, which is unquestionably the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. 

Let’s start with the proposition that there are practical steps the government can take right now to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Done right, this transition will strengthen the U.S. economy and make it more competitive with other countries that are looking to win the fight for the globe’s clean-energy future. 

I plan to work with my colleagues on the committee to start finding answers to each of those questions. I fully expect to find common ground with members on both sides of the aisle and write bills that can pass through the Senate. One colleague told me recently, “No one expects to pass bills this year, but I expect Energy and Natural Resources to pass some bills.” 

I agree. I want this committee to get things done. 

The committee’s first order of business will be natural gas: how it’s produced, how it’s used and how much of it the U.S. should use it here or send abroad. Whether you are for more renewables or for traditional fuels, there’s no escaping the fact that the shale gas revolution is dominating today’s energy discussion. 

First, it’s important that companies extract this resource safely. Common-sense rules can safeguard communities that could be affected by gas development, without harming natural-gas producers.

Next, decisions about exporting natural gas could have enormous consequences for how shale gas affects the economy. I want to ensure misguided government policy doesn’t shut down the manufacturing resurgence this country has seen as a result of reliable, low-cost natural-gas supplies. But I don’t oppose all exports. My aim is to find a sweet spot that allows some exports and keeps wells in production, while ensuring U.S. manufacturing and national security are not harmed by allowing unfettered liquefied natural-gas exports. 

Getting natural gas right is the first step, but it’s not enough. The low-carbon economy also needs more renewable energy and more efficient use of the energy the U.S. already has. 

Clean-energy developers have told me they’ve been hurt by inconsistent federal policies, which make it hard to plan and find financing for projects. I hope to work with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to replace the roller coaster of short-term incentives with more stable, technology-neutral policies that reward renewable and domestic energy sources. 

At the same time, the Energy Department should continue to support research into innovative energy technologies, to make sure the U.S. is home to the next game-changing energy breakthrough. 

That’s just a start. There’s also nuclear waste, revenue sharing and a host of natural-resources issues that need action in this Congress. 

To accomplish anything, though, the committee will have to get back to doing business the way it did not too long ago. I say that with great respect for former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose accomplishments rival that of any Energy Committee chairman and who had to cope with events outside his control. 

The numbers tell the story: In the 106th Congress, the committee passed 226 bills, most of them public lands bills with no opposition. In the 112th Congress, Energy and Natural Resources passed just 75 bills.

I’ve spent my career finding bipartisan solutions to tough issues. And I’ve learned that pragmatism and principles don’t have to conflict. My colleagues and I are aiming to get things done over the next two years, because the challenges the U.S. faces on energy are too pressing to pass on to the next Congress.

Wyden is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.