Don’t delay action on energy issues

As Congress returns and the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, many Americans, including members of Congress from both parties, are frustrated about the seemingly endless string of partisan battles over energy policies and projects. 

Whether it’s Keystone and oil pipelines, Solyndra and loan guarantees, light bulb standards and energy efficiency, responsible development of new shale natural gas or the future of nuclear power, partisans on both sides are portraying these issues as all or nothing.

We know from experience that more agreement and desire for compromise exists than it now appears, if only Congress and the administration will look for it. Indeed, we hope President Obama begins that process in his speech tonight.

For example, little noticed in the president’s remarks on the Keystone XL oil pipeline last week was a suggestion that he stands ready to work with industry to expedite that part of the pipeline that would run from the major oil supply center at Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast refineries. The administration should make good on this promise.

Currently, oil from U.S. sources like the Bakken fields in North Dakota cannot reach Gulf Coast refineries easily. Expediting construction of a pipeline that flows south from Cushing would reduce the glut of cheaper oil there, allowing refiners to be less reliant on more expensive foreign oil and creating jobs, according to industry analysts. This could be important progress as the larger Keystone issue gets resolved. 

And while Keystone has attracted the attention, a huge assortment of new pipelines, gathering systems and storage projects are on the horizon; where appropriate, their construction can be expedited, as well.  

Important advances are possible this year on other energy issues. For example, the United States is one step closer to building the first new nuclear power plants in 30 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is likely to soon approve a license for construction of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Georgia; the AP1000 reactor features advanced passive systems that provide a significant safety advantage. 

Critical to this project are loan guarantees, also pending, established with bipartisan support under the 2005 energy bill. With issuance of the NRC license, the Department of Energy can finalize a loan guarantee to the plants’ owner to mitigate financing costs over the 5- to 6-year construction.

In Congress, legislation with bipartisan support is languishing in the midst of broader partisanship. A bill by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), approved by a 18-3 vote in the Senate Energy Committee, could greatly improve U.S. energy efficiency, reducing costs for consumer and businesses and making American industry more competitive.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), has sponsored legislation that would require the Department of Energy to establish a quadrennial energy review to provide an integrated view of national energy objectives, policies and strategies — a long overdue approach.

Among other innovative ideas, a provision contained in House legislation would establish a competitive “reverse auction” process to fund renewable energy generation projects in which grants would be distributed to firms who provide the lowest cost-per-unit of energy bid for a renewable energy project.

Similarly, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have developed legislation to create an independent, accountable agency to help the private sector commercialize advanced technologies at the lowest possible cost without political influence.

Other important approaches need more bipartisan champions. For example, there is an opportunity to increase oil and natural-gas development on public lands and offshore while dedicating a small portion of the new royalty revenue to fund alternatives to oil. These alternatives can include not only electrification of transport and natural gas for long-haul trucks and buses, but also long-term research and development to develop energy technology breakthroughs.

The states and industry also have key roles, of course. New shale gas resources are already lowering American energy costs while promising cleaner power, but production must be undertaken responsibly or this potential boon could be under-realized. 

Energy is too important to our economy and the lives of the American people to simply write off an entire year — even an election year — to inaction. Congress and the administration can both deliver valuable results — this year.

Dorgan and Lott are senior fellows at the Bipartisan Policy Center and co-chairmen of its Energy Project.