Pipeline to a Comprehensive National Energy Plan?

A new Congress seated itself this week and a first item of business has been a measure to advance the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline. With Republicans now having secured control in the Senate, they will join the GOP majority in the House in an effort to push the bill through. Senate Republicans know they will need to concede some energy efficiency and renewable energy-related amendments from Democrats to form a majority that could overcome a threatened presidential veto. But could the legislation provide an opportunity for lawmakers to take a broader, more comprehensive look at U.S. energy policy? 25x’25 hopes the answer to this question is yes.

There is no shortage of contentious issues around the pipeline, including the number of jobs it will create, its impact on the economy, and any additional carbon the transported oil will eventually emit into the atmosphere, among others. Sadly the magnitude of the debate and the heated rhetoric it generates obscures a far greater U.S. need long acknowledged by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – a long-term, wide-ranging policy that assures the role of all forms of energy for decades to come.

Sometimes an “outside-in” look at an issue provides useful insight and perspective. The International Energy Agency (IEA) for example offers a credible review of what’s going on in the U.S. energy arena, conducting its first assessment since 2008, and finding that federal energy policy is fragmented and poses an impediment to sustaining not only renewable energy innovation, but insuring an uninterrupted flow of petroleum production.

The IEA, an autonomous organization that works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 29 member countries, including the United States, was generally positive in its review of U.S. energy developments. The report cited the boom in oil and natural gas production, which the IEA says is making a substantial contribution to economic activity and competitiveness. However, the report notes the expansion in U.S. energy production is also “raising unease on environmental and safety grounds, concerns which must be addressed appropriately.”

The U.S. natural gas boom has resulted in stable wholesale electricity prices, lower greenhouse gas emissions and greater system flexibility, the IEA said. But the electrical grid is in need of significant investment if the country is to meet demand growth forecasts and strengthen its resilience to climate change.

And finally, U.S. renewable energy production is growing, but the durability of federal tax incentives and demand signals remains a persistent uncertainty.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said at a recent conference with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that “developments in the U.S. energy sector have bolstered the country’s energy security, sustainability, and economic competitiveness – but challenges remain.”

The lack of consistency in U.S. energy policy, the IEA official said, is an obstacle to sound, diverse energy production. She cited last month’s approval by the previous Congress of the one-year renewal – until the end of 2014 ‑ of production tax credits for wind and other renewable forms of energy as demonstrating the instability of U.S. energy policy, noting a renewal of only one year does not insure a stable investment environment for clean energy projects.

The DOE later this month is set to release the first U.S. Quadrennial Energy Review, a significant assessment of production trends and policy effectiveness nationwide. While lawmakers in Washington find themselves embroiled in the Keystone issue – a floor votes could come in the Senate next week, and in the House, which passed the bill last year, as early as Friday – the 25x’25 Alliance urges policy makers to use the upcoming four-year review to broaden their outlook, leverage the vigor of a new Congress and take on the difficult – but critically necessary – task of building a comprehensive, long-term policy for guiding our nation’s energy, economic and environmental future.

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