U.S. Must Lead Way in Clean Energy Technology, Agency Heads Say

Agency heads tell Congress U.S. needs to lead the way, push climate bill.

October 28, 2009, 8:20 AM

Oct. 28, 2009— -- Backers of a sweeping energy and environmental bill are hoping to inject new momentum into a stalled effort to cap carbon emissions, with a major push timed around extensive hearings this week on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the first legislative hearing of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. Over the next few days, 54 witnesses on nine separate panels will testify before the committee, and proponents of the bill are hoping that skeptics will change their minds.

Otherwise known as the Kerry-Boxer bill -- the Senate version of the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House this summer -- the legislation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap and trade system.

But the system has its critics. Proponents argue that for 22 to 30 cents a day per household, Americans will be in charge of their energy future and reduce dependence on foreign oil, but opponents counter that the bill will increase taxes and do little to avert climate change.

On Tuesday, The Environment and Public Works Committee heard statements from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, and head of the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, all of whom pushed for swift legislation.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has signaled its support for a cleaner energy future, announcing billions of dollars in stimulus funding for renewable energy projects, and advocating climate change legislation.

President Obama was even praised for his work in combating global climate change when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.

Steven Chu: U.S. Needs to Lead the Way

At the Senate hearing, Chu stressed that the United States should capitalize on the global need to cut emissions by taking the lead in renewable energy technology.

"When the starting gun sounded on the clean energy race, the United States stumbled," Chu told lawmakers. "But I remain confident that we can make up the ground."

From the $787 billion federal stimulus funds, $80 billion has already been set aside for investments in new battery technology, energy efficiency, and modernizing the electric grid.

Just Tuesday, Obama announced a $3.4 billion federal investment in "smart" electric grid technology.

"We're on the cusp of a new energy future," the president said, touting the technology, which he said will cut electricity usage by 4 percent by 2030.

Chu noted that there is a need for comprehensive climate legislation to go along with the stimulus funding.

Chu and other agency heads stressed the work their teams are doing in moving forward on Obama's clean energy agenda.

Salazar told Congress the Interior Department is involved in efforts to fast forward renewable energy projects this year.

The department has set aside 1,000 square miles for solar energy development projects.

"On those lands alone that could account for about 100,000 megawatts of power, enough to power 29 million homes, 29 percent of household needs," Salazar said.

The Interior Department is fast-tracking applications in Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico and expects to be able to permit 4,500 megawatts of solar power -- equivalent to about 14 or 15 coal fired power plants -- by the end of next year.

Wind and Geothermal projects are also being given priority. The Interior Department expects to approve 800 megawatts of wind energy by next year. Specifically, the Interior is looking into the Atlantic Seaboard where political support is strong for renewable power.

The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) has progressed in removing barriers to the use of "low carbon" renewable resources and encouraged greater efficiency in the electricity system and the need to put a price on carbon in the market place, Wellinghoff told senators.

But efforts to remove barriers by FERC and "the efforts of other federal and state agencies, while helpful, are not enough to efficiently stem the growing accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere," he said.

But even though Wellinghoff and his counterparts touted the Kerry-Boxer bill, not all members of Congress are on board.

The committee's top Republican, James Inhofe, R-Okla., argued against the bill, saying it represents "a fundamental difference in a vision for the country."

He also said that the American people wouldn't buy the added expenses.

"This is something the American people can't tolerate and I don't think they will," Inhofe said.

Others complained the process is too hurried.

"Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now?" asked Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "Wouldn't it be smarter to take our time and do it right?"