Arizona congressman: We need new energy policy, now

 

The energy world we live in now was unthinkable just a decade ago. Policy back then was shaped by talk of peak oil and fears of increased reliance on Russian or Middle East imports. President Bush used his State of the Union address that year to push Congress for legislation to reduce environmental oversight and expand domestic drilling. As I remember it, the mood in Washington could best be described as frantic.

So much has changed since then. Domestic development is now booming so fast that Big Oil has set its sight beyond our shores and wants to end the export ban. The underground fracking revolution has ended any talk of "peak" production.

 But you wouldn't know it in Washington. Instead of recognizing that renewable energy has become affordable, or acknowledging the environmental risks of continued greenhouse gas emissions, industry lobbyists and many of my colleagues repeat the same talking points they've been using for years. I give them full credit for consistency, but they sound like a broken record that's been skipping since the days of the first Westward oil rush.

Responding to President Bush's plea, the Energy Policy Act passed by a Republican-dominated Congress in 2005 was in some ways a product of the country's strike-it-rich mentality. Oil-patch pioneers may have embraced innovation and bold thinking, but the law reads like an industry wish list. It gave away tens of billions of dollars worth of royalty-free oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and exempted oil and gas drillers from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It waived the National Environmental Policy Act for drilling projects on public lands and gave billions of dollars in tax subsidies to nuclear, fossil fuel and "clean coal" interests.



Much of that law is still on the books, and now serious observers of all stripes agree we need to revisit it. But not even our national fracking boom, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, or an ongoing barrage of news about disastrous pipeline spills have convinced my House Republican counterparts to provide more balance to our energy policy. This is frustrating indeed. 

It's past time to write a new energy law. We need to deal with the tremendous impacts that communities face when oil and gas interests move into their towns and demand access to the resources under or near their homes or watersheds. President Obama has made some improvements to the Bush administration's drill-first philosophy on our public lands. Congress needs to get equally engaged.

 My friends in the Senate have started working on some overdue updates. I doubt I'll agree with everything the Republican majority comes up with, but I salute their willingness to tackle the issue in a bipartisan fashion. I may live to regret these words, but I wish their House counterparts showed the same initiative.

 The House Natural Resources Committee has held no meaningful hearings on a new national energy strategy. Even if individual members may now understand that our energy situation has changed, they don't seem to want to do anything about it as a group.

We've heard nothing about a direction forward, aside from the usual out-of-date ideas about continued subsidies for oil drillers, faster permitting times and weaker environmental standards. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that our energy picture has changed more dramatically over the past decade than perhaps at any time in the twentieth century.

 Their lack of urgency is dangerous. Climate change is real; everyone from Pope Francis to your local climatologist recognizes it. Fracking will spread to new areas wherever a profit can be made from it. Oil spills like the BP disaster and the recent spill near Santa Barbara, California, present an ever-present risk. Our current laws are, in some cases, simply no match for the environmental and energy risks we face.

An update to our energy laws would mean a chance to end the industry-friendly loopholes, weak environmental standards and sweeping industry favoritism of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It would mean a chance to treat renewable energy sources as the economically competitive options they are rather than experimental afterthoughts. It means, more than anything, a chance to treat climate change as an immediate threat rather than an inconvenience that has nothing to do with our energy policies.

Raúl M. Grijalva is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a Democratic congressman from Arizona and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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