Democratic News

Here is a guest column on energy from Sen. Bingaman that appears in today’s The Hill: Acting on Our Immediate Energy Challenges Three immediate energy challenges face our country this summer – high prices for transportation fuels, high prices for natural gas, and uncertainty about the reliability of our national electric system. Straightforward steps exist to address all three. We need to start taking them. High prices for gasoline and other transportation fuels result partly from high crude oil prices, but also from ineffective Administration policies. Constructive actions, had they been taken earlier than this summer, would not have forestalled all of the price pressures consumers now see at the pump, but would have helped to ease a number of them. The Administration was late to pressure OPEC to increase the amount of oil flowing into world markets this spring. When OPEC voted to cut production starting in April, very little was heard from the Administration. Only after it became clear that this decision was going to send gasoline prices over $2 per gallon did the Administration start to advocate strongly for more production. The Administration compounded this problem by continuing to take crude oil off the market in order to achieve extremely marginal gains in the capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Today, the Administration continues to neglect longer-term steps to facilitate additional refinery infrastructure and to reduce the complexity of the numerous regional "boutique" gasoline formulations. These were issues that other Members of Congress and I raised, and urged specific action on, earlier this year. Our specific and constructive suggestions still remain relevant today. For example, I have advocated a broad stakeholder process to identify measures to further expand U.S. refinery capacity. The Administration is doing nothing along these lines, and some in the House of Representatives simply want to truncate public input into Federal permits affecting refineries. Neither ignoring the problem nor trying to sweep away public input will be effective ways to increase refining capacity, in my view. We need an effective strategy for boosting refinery capacity that takes into account everyone with a stake in the outcome, including consumers and State and local governments. As another example, we need to do something about the proliferation of boutique fuels, which may add up to 10 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. The Administration has done nothing to address the problem since completing a study in 2001. Two months ago, I asked the Energy Department and EPA to develop a plan for how federal, state and local requirements for boutique fuels could be rationalized and streamlined, while maintaining air quality. I have not heard back. Another immediate energy challenge concerns high natural gas prices. Natural gas is crucial to electricity generation, to our nation's manufacturing sector, and to heating homes. Here, possible positive near-term steps are also being ignored by the Administration. Interest in producing more natural gas domestically has led to an increase in applications to lease or drill on Federal lands. Most of these locations are not particularly controversial, and Federal land management agencies have a big backlog of such applications. The President's latest budget request, though, did not propose funds to appreciably reduce that backlog. The President instead proposed to slash funds for developing and disseminating new technology to produce domestic oil and natural gas. I asked the Administration to identify additional funds to reverse these cuts and reduce the application backlog to zero. It did not, which means that Congress will have to do this job in the current appropriations process. The problem is, anything Congress does will not take effect until October, at the earliest, when we begin the new fiscal year. This unfortunate delay may be reflected in higher natural gas prices this fall and winter. Electricity reliability is a third area in which we need to make an immediate difference. Here the ball is in Congress’ court. It needs to pass legislation that grants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission clear authority to improve our nation's power grid and gives Americans a more dependable electricity system. Legislation to do this is now on the Senate Calendar. Thirty Senators from both parties have signed onto the bill. It is not controversial. It was the top recommendation of the U.S.-Canada Task Force that investigated last summer's blackout. It has been passed, in one form or another, by the Senate in three different Congresses. It is apparently being held hostage, though, to gain leverage to pass other, more controversial proposals. I think that is another unfortunate mistake, and I hope that those who are preventing its passage will rethink their opposition. Our immediate energy challenges are, at least in part, the consequence of inattention to straightforward measures that should have been taken long ago. As a result, consumers are paying higher prices than they should, or are unnecessarily at risk of energy-related disruptions. The Administration needs to pick up the ball on oil and gas, and Congress needs to pass electricity reliability legislation.

# # #