The Impressionist Energy Policy Landscape

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The utility industry, the federal government and numerous NGOs are on the ground helping our 3.4 million fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. The Salvation Army is on the front lines and collecting much-needed donations.

As we ease into fall in Washington, D.C., there’s very little talk left of comprehensive energy bills. Yet, small developments and conversations keep going, adding bits of color and light to the energy policy landscape. It’s akin to an Impressionist painting at this time; general outlines are there, but interpretation of the overall scene depends greatly on your vantage point.

PACE reported in August on the Trump Administration’s executive order aimed at speeding up and easing permitting for infrastructure projects. Subsequently, the Department of Interior and two Senators made notable announcements.

Last week, Senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Angus King (I – ME) introduced S. 1844, the Coordinating Inter-Agency Review of Natural Gas Infrastructure Act of 2017.’’ The bill seeks to shore up the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) role as lead agency for the permit review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The House passed a similar bill, HR. 2910, in late July. 

Earlier this month, the Department of Interior (DOI) followed on the executive order with a memo setting a 150-page limit on environmental impact statements, with exceptions possible for very complex projects. EIS statements are required under NEPA provisions; the DOI reportedly issues about 80 each year, often weighing in at thousands of pages. The agency also directed staff to complete EIS within one year, a significant change from the usual three to five year timelines.

Predictably, some protest at suggestions that energy project reviews speed up, but that seems increasingly incongruous when consumer desires and the pace of technology developments are used to argue that the energy industry should move ahead quickly.

This point was underscored Tuesday, as the House Energy & Commerce Energy Subcommittee continued its thoughtful series of “Powering America” hearings, this time examining advanced energy technologies. These hearings are the best current avatar for legislation. Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) summed up this week’s inquiry:

“[The U.S. electricity sector is one of the most regulated sectors in the American economy. …This regulatory structure has been crafted for good reason and remains critical in ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable and reliable electricity. However, when it comes to advanced energy technologies, we must make sure that the country’s regulatory structure and policies continue to be updated and modernized so they do not stand as barriers to innovation.”

Notably, it’s National Clean Energy Week, with events in D.C. and elsewhere, and extending into the fall. It’s the brainchild of a larger coalition than you might expect, with nuclear and hydro playing key roles. Across the events, some remarks have been surprising too, including DOI Secretary Zinke opining that federal lands shouldn’t be used for utility-scale solar generation (his rationale – land is then cut off from other uses) and expressing a preference for rooftop solar. 

From where PACE sits, these Fall 2017 developments are adding to a familiar scene rather than creating a brand-new landscape:

  • Many genuine questions remain about the proper marriage of technology and policy.
  • No one person or institution has all the right answers.
  • Clean energy has an increasingly large role to play, but still relies on a relationship with traditional fossil fuels and infrastructure.
  • Changes in process are often more impactful than changes in law.

The energy policy landscape will remain “impressionist” for the foreseeable future; we all have a responsibility to add to and interpret it in good faith.