House Republicans this week slammed the door on holding hearings into climate change science, rejecting the legislative urgency Democrats tried to invoke in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and President Obama's call to action on the issue. Instead, two GOP energy leaders suggested that a "balanced" energy approach could reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a byproduct of promoting domestic energy sources such as natural gas. That, in turn, feeds into an intensifying debate over natural gas's role in achieving climate change and other environmental goals.
The Republican leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee made clear that the science of climate change is not on their agenda, rebuffing Democratic proposals to add hearings on climate science to the panel's biennial oversight agenda. Committee Republicans do intend to closely oversee EPA's climate program, which they unsuccessfully sought to dismantle in the last Congress.
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Perhaps mindful of public opinion on climate change amid the continuing cleanup in Sandy's aftermath, Senate Energy & Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and House Energy & Commerce energy and power subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) in separate appearances this week avoided head-on confrontations over the science or legitimacy of climate change as a matter of national concern.
Instead, Whitfield trumpeted the idea that the United States has "reduced carbon emissions in this country more than any other country in the world in the last 10 years," doing so without a cap-and-trade system or other direct regulation of carbon emissions. Whitfield emphasized the country's abundant energy supplies, suggesting that even greater use of natural gas should be a key element of any climate strategy. On the other hand, he sharply criticized EPA's regulatory plans for greenhouse gases.
Murkowski, who has stressed her ability to work on a bipartisan basis with the new chairman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden (R-OR), unveiled her own energy blueprint, which would expand natural gas and other fossil fuel production while devoting new funding to clean energy resources. Murkowski offered a similar bargain last year, but her ability to craft any deals with now-retired committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was stymied by election-year politics, as well as their sharp disagreement over federal-state revenue sharing.
Murkowski said the challenge is to lower the cost for renewable energy sources, not to raise the price for fossil fuels. She said lower carbon emissions would be an "outgrowth" of increased use of natural gas and support for emerging renewable energy technologies.
However, environmental groups already are challenging the GOP's bullish view on natural gas, contending that much tighter environmental controls are needed for the entire gas supply chain. An updated report by the World Resources Institute says EPA has Clean Air Act authority to squeeze substantial methane emission reductions from the process of extracting and consuming natural gas.
EPA on Feb. 5 released its report on total greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, finding that oil and natural gas operations are now the second largest source of greenhouse gases, bumping the oil refining sector to number three. Power plants continue to contribute the largest share of GHGs in the United States. Environmentalists said the report was a "call to action" for EPA.
Meanwhile, a senior Department of Energy official this week cautioned that a speedy decision was unlikely on applications to export liquefied natural gas. Environmentalists argue that the exports would increase global GHG emissions but supporters say tapping foreign markets is critical to preserving the viability of domestic gas production.
Some legal observers say the United States may not be allowed to restrict LNG exports under its World Trade Organization obligations. However, the United States could seek an exemption from WTO rules if it were to impose new environmental controls on hydraulic fracturing, the observers say.
Environmentalists this week moved quickly to urge Secretary of State John Kerry to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada. And a new report says carbon capture & sequestration will remove only 70 percent of power plants' greenhouse gas emissions, not the 90 percent previously believed.