CRS Report: US Energy Policy Debate Centers on Energy Security Costs, and Environment

A report recently released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) identifies policy goals—and their fundamental differences—identified in the 2012 presidential election and as highlighted in recent energy-related legislation. Among the nation's energy priorities are to stabilize oil and gas markets, create natural gas pipeline infrastructure, dispose of nuclear radioactive waste, and replace conventional energy resources with renewables.The U.S. lacks a national energy plan. However, energy policy in the U.S. is mostly focused on three major goals: ensuring a secure supply of energy, keeping energy costs low, and protecting the environment, says the report, Energy Policy: 113th Congress Issues.

Even so, these ambitions are undercut by disagreements about the role of government, which has become a contentious issue that is characteristic in political debate, the report notes. "A fundamental dichotomy that lies beneath many individual policy debates, not only in energy issues, is between those who see government intervention as a positive force, and those who view it at best as a necessary evil to be restricted as much as possible," it says.

Debate about the nation's electric power sector is typified by electricity's central role in America's energy mix. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiatives that have imposed tighter emissions restrictions on coal-fired power plants are particularly "controversial," the report says. "Limits on cross-state emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants, and regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, among other proposed regulations, have been characterized by critics as a regulatory 'train wreck' that would impose excessive costs and lead to plant retirements that could threaten the adequacy of electricity capacity (i.e., reliability of supply) across the country, although some in the electric power industry consider those concerns overstated," it notes.

Nuclear power is also an issue, though opposition continues over questions of safety and disposal of radioactive waste. That sector is plagued by cost considerations in the face of increasing natural gas production and safety concerns in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011, the report says.

Conservation and energy efficiency has also been a major component of policy since the first energy crisis of the 1970s. Recent actions include setting fuel economy standards and support for development of smart grid technologies.

The role renewables should play in the future is also much debated. However, electricity production by renewable energy sources—wind power, concentrating solar power, photovoltaic cells, geothermal energy, biomass—"is the goal of many initiatives: research and development programs, tax benefits, loan guarantees, and mandates," it points out.

Meanwhile, production of natural gas has increased sharply since 2010 due to development of tight shale formations, but while shale gas development has spurred environmental concerns about the effects on groundwater from hydraulic fracturing, the need for gathering infrastructure and pipeline construction from new fields is also an issue, it says. The likelihood of increasing exports of liquefied natural gas has also increased, and with it, the “prospect of controversy” over the question of exporting natural gas and its effect on prices and supply.

Domestic oil production is an issue that has seen a long history of controversy, the report says, pointing to environmental concerns that have led to extended moratoria on leasing for many areas. Likewise, the price of oil and gasoline has prompted arguments that prices are being driven by speculation and unregulated manipulation of markets, even though "the issue is complicated because oil prices are largely determined in a world market beyond the reach of domestic regulation," the report says.

U.S. energy policy has historically been characterized by "large, complex bills that deal with a wide variety of issues, with debate spanning several sessions," the report notes. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, was the most recent comprehensive general legislation, with provisions and authorizations in almost all areas of energy policy. But EPAct 2005 also set up the Energy Department's program of energy project loan guarantees, "which has become a source of controversy and debate following the bankruptcy of the Solyndra solar system manufacturing facility in 2011."

Another bill with major energy policy provisions was the 111th Congress American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the "Stimulus" Act). It included expansion of the loan guarantee program and large increases in funding for renewable energy programs.

The 112th Congress did not deal with major energy legislation, but it did extend energy tax credits such as the Production Tax Credit for wind power, notes the report.

The 113th Congress, meanwhile, is expected to debate approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the EPA's regulations of emissions from coal plants (though no legislation has been introduced yet to the 113th Congress), the regulation and safety of hydraulic fracturing, and energy efficiency.

Sources: POWERnews, CRS

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

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