June 06, 2020

Turn Out the Lights

Congress has tried for 10 years to develop a sensible energy bill that would address complex and shifting energy demands and very real environmental worries while anticipating the likely course of energy markets in the coming decades. Given the way the Energy Policy Act of 2003 looks as it is being completed in the House and Senate conference, Congress’ latest attempt was considerably less than successful. It would do better to take an 11th year and try again.

The bill, which will emerge from conference next week without a vote, fails to recognize the fact of electricity deregulation in much of the country, prepares for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve while rejecting a renewable portfolio standard that would produce more energy than the bill’s large and unacceptable subsidies for the nuclear industry and provides overly broad protection to the makers of MTBE, the gasoline additive that has found its way into groundwater in Maine and other states.

Any one of these shortcomings should make members of Congress question the bill; together they produce terrible policy. The ANWR drilling, for instance, is especially shortsighted because of its environmental threat and because it opens up that last major untapped oil reserve in a nation likely to be dependent on oil for many years – what sort of legacy is that to leave the next generations? On the nuclear plant subsidies: the Congressional Budget Office concludes those new plants will likely end up in default before paying back loans. Or the renewable portfolio standard, which insists that a small amount of the power mix be made up of wind, solar, biomass or geothermal. The Senate passed that standard but the House-Senate conference has removed it from its reconciled bill.

A less obvious but no less important provision is absent from the act. It would promote badly needed expansions of regional transmission organizations, an unglamorous title for the groups that make sure electricity flows from state to state. Sen. Susan Collins, who helped draft a letter to the conference on RTOs, wrote that they “will help our nation improve our ability to respond to problems in the grid by having an effective regional ‘traffic cop’ with a reliability mission to manage any future incidents,” referring to this summer’s blackout.

Improving the latest version of the energy bill with these changes is not likely without the threat of a filibuster and even that might not be effective. But it would be better to have no bill this year than to pass or allow to pass a bill as damaging as the one being contemplated by the conference. Better to reject it entirely and start again next year.

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