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That's what policymakers are seeking to do right now, and with more success than in recent years. The House has overwhelmingly passed two pieces of legislation streamlining regulations on hydropower projects. Those measures were among the bills the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved last week, along with a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill. "Every time you pass bills like this, you put points on the board in the fight against climate change," said Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., after the markup. "And you do it in a bipartisan way." This legislative activity seems to be putting into action words that Obama uttered more than two years ago, when he said he would tackle energy policy in a "piecemeal" fashion.
But are small-ball measures like this enough to fight climate change? Over the past few years, lawmakers kept trying to "go big" on energy and climate, including enacting a cap-and-trade system. Are more sweeping policies like that and a carbon tax really what's needed to confront this global challenge and to show the rest of the world the United States is serious in its commitment? Or are smaller-ticket policies better than nothing, given that the politics in Washington aren't conducive to more-sweeping measures?
What other small-ball energy and climate policies could Obama and Congress pursue that could--as Wyden says--help put points on the board in Washington's efforts to address global warming?
The federal government doubled the amount of oil and tripled the amount of natural gas estimated to be stored deep under the Dakotas and Montana. In an announcement last week, Interior Department officials cited the advent of two types of technologies as key reasons for this impressive leap in oil and gas reserves: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
This announcement comes ahead of the conference that starts in Houston this week--one of the world's biggest meetings devoted to the latest innovations in offshore energy technologies.
America's oil and natural-gas industry isn't the only sector innovating. The Energy Department, especially its Advanced Research Projects Agency, is partnering with universities and private companies on renewable-energy technologies to ensure the United States doesn't relinquish innovations to China and other Asian countries.
What do private-sector technological innovations across the energy sector mean for Washington's efforts to enact energy and climate-change policy? For renewable energy especially, what's the right balance between government involvement and other stakeholders when it comes to innovating technologies?
Does the oil and gas boom put Washington in a reactive, instead of proactive, legislating mode? Why or why not?
When looking at the broad spectrum of energy resources, what technology innovations are the most promising?
Editor's note: Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., is guest-moderating and providing the question this week. Coons is a member of the committees on Budget; Energy and Natural Resources; Judiciary; and Foreign Relations.
There has been an escalating discussion about how tax policy treats traditional energy and renewable energy interests. This is critical in terms of driving investment, economic growth, and environmental performance. Senate and House tax committees are talking more publicly about broader tax reform, but will this be achieved within this Congress?
While oil and gas and renewables have often been pitted against each other, Sen. Coons, Rep. Ted Poe, and other colleagues introduced bipartisan legislation known as the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act this past week in the spirit of the all-of-the-above energy approach.
If this bill passes, what will be the effect on the renewable-energy industry in terms of attracting new investment and creating jobs? How will renewable power and fuels sources take advantage of the MLP structure if it were to become law?
What legislative pathway do you see as most likely for the MLP Parity Act in light of tax-reform discussions? Is there a path for passing this bill other than absorbing it into comprehensive tax reform?
What would be the likely outcome for the continued utilization of clean-energy tax credits and oil and gas tax treatment?
Will renewable-energy projects use the "exit MLP"--financing projects through debt and then "dropping them down" into MLPs to spin them off? Will other creative structures emerge?
There are several new resources and technologies made eligible in the MLP Parity Act, including carbon capture, biochemical, and energy-efficient buildings. Do you see the MLP tax structure as working well for these approaches?
The amount of change happening in Washington right now is impressive. Congressional leaders are debating immigration reform and gun control, and lawmakers from both parties are voicing support for gay marriage. Why isn't this kind of sea change happening right now with energy and climate policy?
Whether or not Congress ends up passing meaningful legislation on immigration and guns, and regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on two related gay-marriage cases this summer, the stage has clearly been set for meaningful legislative and public-discourse momentum on these trio of issues.
Why is the momentum in favor of change on immigration, gun control, and gay marriage, but not on major energy and climate-change policy? Or do you dispute that premise?
Should Washington instead try to move forward in the area of energy and climate policy in a piecemeal fashion, as President Obama has said before? Or, does this big policy area require big solutions?
President Obama's budget, and indeed those drafted by congressional Democrats and Republicans, never become law. But the proposals are important blueprints indicating which direction the parties want to take the nation's fiscal policies.
In Obama's budget for fiscal year 2014, the funding levels for the three agencies responsible for energy and environment policies--the Energy and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency--are similar to those he proposed last year. The Energy Department's budget would see an 8 percent increase from 2012, with much of that going toward renewable-energy and efficiency programs. Funding for fossil-fuel programs would decrease. As he has in every budget since entering the White House in 2009, Obama calls for a repeal of oil and natural-gas tax breaks. The Interior Department's budget would also see an increase, albeit a smaller one at 4 percent. The department ramps up funding for the Land and Conservation Fund and provides more money for oil and natural-gas permitting programs. EPA gets the short stick: Its budget is down 3.5 percent compared with 2012 levels. Backing up Obama's rhetoric committing himself to action on climate change, EPA's budget in this area saw a slight increase from 2012 levels, from $476 million to $477 million. EPA's plan to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act brings with it a host of challenges concerning both the budget and political opposition.
What do these budget figures mean for Washington's fight over spending? What changes in funding levels in these areas should lawmakers and Obama seek? The budget priorities of congressional Democrats and Obama are far apart from those of congressional Republicans. Can any common ground be found in these budgets, especially as they relate to energy and environmental policy?
Do the risks associated with the Keystone XL oil pipeline outweigh the benefits?
That's the debate playing out in Washington and around the country right now in the wake of an oil-pipeline spill in Arkansas. The ExxonMobil-owned pipeline accident, which spilled at least a few thousand barrels of oil in a Little Rock suburb, is a stark reminder that energy production comes with unavoidable risks. Ironically, the spill occurred a little more than a year after President Obama signed a law strengthening the nation's pipeline-safety regulations.
Is the Arkansas oil-pipeline spill reason enough not to build the oil-sands project? How can Washington and the private sector work to ensure such a spill never occurs with the Keystone XL pipeline?
What does the Arkansas oil-pipeline spill say about the risks inherent in fossil-fuel production and transportation? Are these risks really unavoidable?
How can Washington develop innovative energy technologies when the government is so focused on cutting spending?
That's the seemingly inherent conflict that faces President Obama and Congress now that the era of stimulus funding, subsidies, and loan guarantees is coming to an end. Obama is urging Congress to pass a proposal called an Energy Security Trust, which would put money from current offshore oil and natural-gas drilling revenues toward research into renewable energy and natural gas. Some Republicans, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, say they would support the policy only if it was paired with new offshore oil and gas drilling.
Should Congress consider Obama's proposal for an Energy Security Trust? What are the pros and cons of such a policy? What other ways can Washington provide funding to research and develop new energy technologies while remaining committed to its goal of fiscal austerity? Or should Washington just get out of the business of funding energy technologies?
How, if at all, should Congress change the renewable fuels standard?
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., last week released the first in a series of white papers on Wednesday seeking input on how--or whether--Congress should change the mandate for production of biofuels as gasoline blends.
The Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires increasingly large amounts of biofuels each year, was part of a comprehensive energy bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2005 and expanded two years later during a drive to make the country more energy-independent. Most of the mandate is currently met with corn-produced ethanol; advanced biofuels made from products other than corn are not coming to market as quickly as the law had originally envisioned. The mandate came under intense bipartisan scrutiny amid last summer's historic drought, which sent corn prices soaring.
Should Congress try to fix the mandate? And, if so, what are the major areas lawmakers should focus on? Should lawmakers instead try to defend the policy as it stands? Or, should lawmakers just eliminate the mandate?
Are there other policies, such as a low-carbon fuel standard, that could achieve the same end as the RFS without some of the concerns lawmakers cite about the biofuels mandate?
What risks do cyberattacks pose to America's energy infrastructure?
Over the past few months, Washington and the rest of the country have become increasingly aware of hackers attacking the Internet components of the country's economy. Last week, White House Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said cyberattacks are now among the top threats to national security.
One disconcerting threat would be a cyberattack on the infrastructure controlling pipelines moving oil and natural gas, or the electrical grid that powers the entire country. Experts say that a big cyberattack could cause blackouts and other disruptions stemming from the country's dependence on energy resources.
In a sign of how integral the energy industry is to the cybersecurity debate, President Obama invited several top energy executives to a meeting at the White House last week on the topic. According to Bloomberg News, the meeting included Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, American Electric Power CEO Nicholas Akins, and Marathon Oil CEO Clarence Cazalot Jr.
Despite the growing alarm about cyberattacks, Congress has not passed legislation that would strengthen the country's ability to prevent such attacks. Obama signed an executive order last month to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that the order was not enough and that Congress must act too.
What more does Washington need to do to ensure that the country is protected from cyberattacks? What are the pros and cons of recent legislation proposed in Congress to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity? How can Washington strike the right balance between guarding against cyberattacks and protecting the privacy of companies and individuals?
Will it take the occurrence of a major cyberattack to get Washington to act?
What do President Obama's nominees for the Energy and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency say about his second-term agenda on these issues?
All the top Cabinet aides overseeing Obama's energy and environmental policies are leaving, and the president has announced his choices to replace them: Sally Jewell, chief executive of the outdoor-gear retailer REI, for Interior secretary; EPA's current assistant administrator for air and radiation, Gina McCarthy, as the agency's administrator; and MIT professor Ernest Moniz as Energy secretary.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for Jewell last week, and hearings are expected soon for McCarthy at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Moniz at the Energy and Natural Resources panel.
With Congress gridlocked on energy and environmental policy, any major progress Obama hopes to make on these issues will likely be done within EPA and the Energy and Interior departments, in coordination with White House aides, including Obama's top energy and environment adviser, Heather Zichal.
What do Obama's picks say about how ambitious he hopes to be in the next four years? What agency will be the most active in forming policy? If these nominees are confirmed by the Senate, what advice would you give to Jewell, McCarthy, and Moniz as they prepare to accept Obama's key energy and environment Cabinet posts?