A new start on energy

If Republicans retake the House in November, Texas Congressman Joe Barton would like his old job back as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.  He spoke to The Hill’s comment editor, Emmanuel Touhey, recently about where he thinks Democrats went wrong and what he would do differently if he becomes chairman in the 112th Congress.

The Hill: It’s been over a year since the House passed a cap-and-trade bill. Why has there been so little progress?
Rep. Barton: Well it was a bad bill in the House, and it’s been a bad bill in the Senate... It makes us less competitive, we send our jobs overseas. There’s still a scientific debate about whether there needs to be regulation of CO2. It’s a ubiquitous gas, it is a greenhouse gas, but the evidence that it actually causes global climate change is very, very tenuous. What is not tenuous is if you put a tax on it, you’re going to drive our manufacturing jobs to countries that don’t play by the same rules. The American people get that. It barely passed my committee, it barely passed the House. I don’t think it would pass the House today and it’s very unlikely that it’s going to pass the Senate despite the Olympian, gymnastic moves of Sen. [John]Kerry trying to twist it and turn it and double-flip it. It’s just a difficult sell for the American people given the shape our economy’s in right now.

The Hill: So what would you do different to get a bill passed before the election and what would you put in it?
Rep. Barton: Well, first of all, you don’t legislate on the extreme, you legislate in the center. You do things the Republicans and the Democrats, the conservatives and liberals think make sense. So you would have a much more narrowly focused energy bill. Probably do some conservation, some energy research. I think we have a consensus on nuclear power. I thought President Bush’s initiative on hydrogen research made sense. I’d put a little more money in that. And I think Boone Pickens has a good idea in his natural-gas initiative. It’s a domestic resource, it’s plentiful, it’s clean, and it’s relatively inexpensive, both for vehicles and for base-load power generation. And so, I would build from the center like we did in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and you could get some bill like that through and you could get the president to sign it.

The Hill: If Republicans take the House in November, you would be in line to be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. What would be on your agenda?
Rep. Barton: Well, I’ll certainly put myself up for nomination. That’s up to the Republican Steering Committee and then the vote at the conference. But I would certainly petition for the job. The Republican conference has done a really good job of enunciating an all-of-the-above energy policy for America. It focuses on American-made energy, based on property rights, free enterprise, open markets, transparency, some sort of a market test, with the caveat that for emerging technologies you have some research and maybe subsidies to make them competitive or at least an option in the marketplace. I would certainly try to be bipartisan, like I did when I was chairman during the debate on the Energy Policy Act. ...  I think the country works better when the Congress works together. But everything I would do, whether it was energy policy or healthcare policy, would be based on a free-market, private-property, free-enterprise methodology.

The Hill: Specifically, what would you bring to the House floor in the new Congress?
Rep. Barton: There might be something on natural gas. I might do something in the nuclear industry, clean coal. There is a bipartisan approach in clean-coal technology. Carbon-captured sequestration. I would look at, possibly, some sort of a renewable portfolio, if you’ve got the right definitions, which would help the alternative energy. And, while it’s not purely energy policy, I do believe that the Obama administration’s endangerment finding on CO2 was flawed in every way. I would certainly conduct some oversight on that. ...

The Hill: You mentioned nuclear power. How many nuclear plants do we need to meet our energy needs for the next thirty years?
Rep. Barton: Well we have over a hundred that are operating right now. Somewhere between 104 and 112. ... We probably ought to double it, maybe triple it. Hopefully this generation will take the same design and adopt it to the specific location, instead of designing a unique reactor with all the support mechanisms around it. Almost every new plant is going to be built at the existing site of the existing plant, so you could easily double it without too much and then after that, see where we are and what the infrastructure can support and what the market is. There’s going to be a lot of competition from natural gas, and if we do clean coal right, you’re going to have real price competition for fuel sources between new nuclear, natural gas, and clean coal. … Conservation is going to hopefully reduce the demand for new generations, so there will be some real interesting market dynamics in our generation, sector of our economy in the next 10 to, as you put it, 30 years.

The Hill: In light of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico can we have both clean shores and offshore drilling?
Rep. Barton: What happened in April shows that we had become somewhat complacent. But my belief is it’s a correctable problem. I think more and more we’re seeing that BP didn’t follow best practices. … And now there’s just been some information that perhaps people knew about that. You know, I asked the secretary of the Interior if in fact it wasn’t true that that particular blowout preventer had passed its test less than two weeks before the accident, and he said it had, but he also pointed out that current procedures, the safety inspectors from MMS weren’t there at the test, that the contractor, in this case BP, did the test and just sent the certification. So, you know, if you change so that you have a federal third-party inspector, a federal inspector, or a third-party independent inspector on-site to do the test, then you may change the way you test and what you test, and may change safety regulations. The goal would be zero tolerance.  But in my opinion, you don’t get zero tolerance by not allowing drilling. You want zero tolerance by allowing responsible drilling with correct federal and state oversight.

The Hill: Sen. Kerry wrote recently in The Hill that “failure to tackle climate change risks much more than a ravaged environment. It risks a much more dangerous world and a greatly threatened America.”   Do you share his concerns?
Rep. Barton: Well, Sen. Kerry is a very intelligent person and he’s a very committed senator and he believes very strongly in his view of climate change. But I think he used a little bit of environmental emotionalism in that description. I don’t think our world is being ravaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be put at risk by man-made CO2. …There’s growing legitimate, objective skepticism and criticism of the basic theory of climate change driven by man-made CO2 going in the upper atmosphere and somehow interfering with the transmission of light as it comes in for energy as it comes in from the Sun. The worst-case models show basically no temperature gain or loss for the next 200 years. So I think it’s appropriate to be skeptical but not unwilling to conduct research and do things that make sense from an economic and pragmatic standpoint. There’s so much that we can do that doesn’t radically disrupt our economy without adopting some of these radical mandates.