House energy leader praises fracking, warns against supporting renewables

Republican lawmaker also supports streamlined permitting of oil and gas pipelines.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, speaks Monday at the EIA’s annual energy conference in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, speaks Monday at the EIA’s annual energy conference in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

The new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is worried that certain energy sources are getting an unfair advantage over others due to lobbyists tipping the scales in their favor.

The fossil fuels industry has received billions of dollars in federal tax breaks and other government support over the past several decades. But Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who took over as committee chairman in January, was presumably referring to federal policies that support wind and solar energy, not the fossil fuels industry.

“We have to be careful that whoever has the strongest lobby force doesn’t end up putting too big of a federal thumb on the scale when it comes to competition,” Walden said Monday at the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2017 energy conference in Washington, D.C. “It can have a negative disruptive market force that protects an industry that can’t survive perhaps or would be hurt perhaps if they had to compete in a more open market.”

Walden lauded fracking several times in his presentation, emphasizing how the increase in natural gas production over the past decade has helped the United States reduce reduce carbon emissions as it switches away from coal-fired generation. He also expressed support for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. “I don’t think you should punish America’s economy and go the way the past administration was headed,” he said.

The Oregon congressman hasn’t always opposed federal support for renewables. In 2008, Walden emphasized it was time for Congress “to get serious about renewable energy development” by extending the wind energy production tax credit for 10 years “so that businesses can make long-term investment decisions, and the country can get on track for a long-term renewable energy plan that will help wean us from foreign oil.”

The federal production tax credit, as well as the investment tax credit for solar, have played important roles in expediting the deployment of wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy in the United States. Wind and solar now provide 10 percent of U.S. electricity demand.

But sometime after 2008, Walden changed his mind on the necessity of government support for renewable energy. Earlier this year, he complained about the many energy-related provisions that have been added to the tax code over the decades. He specifically criticized federal policies favoring “everything from tax credits for renewable electricity production to incentives for installing energy-saving devices in our homes.”

The facts don’t support Walden’s new position on renewables. The federal government has played a far bigger role — and for a much longer period of time — in sustaining the health of the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries than in helping the wind and solar energy sectors.

Walden also believes the federal government should play a larger role in the siting of pipelines and electric transmission lines to allow developers to bring their projects into operation as quickly as possible.

President Donald Trump shows off his signature on an executive order about the Dakota Access pipeline on Jan. 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump shows off his signature on an executive order about the Dakota Access pipeline on Jan. 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

“When you’re trying to site a pipeline that might run across many states or cross an international border, we’ve all witnessed what that entails and how projects can be stalled at the very end, perhaps killed because of delay or someone’s political agenda,” Walden said, presumably referring to the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline.

The oil and gas industry still receives billions of dollars in tax breaks through deductions for the costs of drilling wells and other favorable tax treatment. The federal government also has provided significant tax breaks and exemptions to the coal industry. Taxpayers often face lost government revenue due to discounted royalty fees for mining on federal lands.

Meanwhile, external costs, such as health care expenses and environmental clean-up from fossil fuel development and use, have been paid by taxpayers — not to mention the huge amount of taxpayer money spent on tackling climate change.

In his remarks at the EIA conference, Walden also said “we want nuclear to be successful as well.” The essential components of nuclear power — reactors and enriched uranium fuel — were developed at taxpayer expense. In the early years of nuclear power development, private utilities were paid to build nuclear reactors and received subsidized fuel, Peter Bradford, a former commissioner on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, explained in an article.

Bradford cited a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found total subsidies paid and offered to nuclear plants between 1960 and 2024 generally exceed the value of the power that they produced.

As head of the House energy committee, Walden plans to work with fellow lawmakers to “streamline the federal permitting process” so that decisions do “not drag out forever.”

Walden said his committee will work with the Trump administration on modernizing the Department of Energy. A lot has changed since the 1970s when the DOE was created, and “it’s time to have a 21st century Energy Department,” he said.

One of the goals of this modernizing effort, Walden said, will be “getting back to the core mission of the Department of Energy.” The congressman’s push to get the DOE to focus on its “core mission” matches the goals of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that issued a report in March calling on the department to focus on “core missions and decrease distractions.”

“The federal government simply should not be involved as it is now in trying to make more efficient solar panels, CO2-free coal plants, smaller commercial nuclear power reactors, or any number of other activities aimed toward jump-starting energy technologies,” the Heritage Foundation said.

Walden’s vision of a DOE that focuses on its “core mission,” as defined by the Heritage Foundation, is contained in the Trump administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018. The administration requested cuts to the DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability by almost half, specifically targeting smart grid, cybersecurity, and energy storage programs.

Trump’s proposed budget also would terminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and cut funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 70 percent, from $2.1 billion to $636 million.