Senators clashed Wednesday over what type of energy future the U.S. should pursue in light of Russia’s ongoing attack of Ukraine, with Democrats pushing for a lower-carbon path and Republicans calling for more exports of natural gas.
Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, meanwhile, said the invasion's disruption of energy markets could serve as a trigger to kickstart an international shift away from oil and gas reliance.
At a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, there was bipartisan agreement on lowering gasoline prices, a subject of upcoming hearings in both chambers. But members disagreed over how to decouple from fluctuations in fossil fuels prices.
“If we had solved this problem a decade ago, we wouldn’t have this vulnerability,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “We’re hostages to the oil and gas industry which is now telling us that the solution for the hostages is to buy more oil and gas.”
GOP senators called for more domestic oil and gas production and pressed for it to be exported abroad to allied nations. They said the Biden administration’s environmental policies are responsible for a recent rise in oil and gasoline prices.
“It’s these policies that are responsible for this,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., of higher oil prices.
The hearing came as the war in Ukraine, which has entered its second month, has resurfaced an ever-percolating debate in Congress over national energy policy and what it means for a country to be energy independent.
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, President Joe Biden levied sanctions against imports of its coal, oil and gas, the House passed its own legislation to block Russian fossil fuel imports.
Granholm made her comments at the International Energy Agency meeting in Paris on Wednesday.
“This is the moment to step up our collective efforts, to put action behind our pledges, to deepen our investments and meaningfully accelerate the clean energy transition,” Granholm said, referencing the World War II-era Marshall Plan as a potential rubric to cut away from oil and gas.
The U.S. and 30 other oil-producing nations, members of the IEA, pledged to release 60 million barrels of oil from their reserves to stabilize the global supply. The Energy Department announced March 16 contracts to release 30 million barrels from its reserve.
Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration, testified at the hearing that peeling away from fossil fuels can lead to safety.
“If you want to have stable prices for energy, they have to be homegrown and they have to be alternative, because they’re bulletproof from world events,” Mabus said. “We must also move swiftly to end the world's addiction to fossil fuels, and we need to start here at home.”
The U.S. is the top producer of oil and gas worldwide, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies in western states, said she was pleased the Biden administration last week approved two export terminals, which can be used to send liquefied natural gas, or LNG, abroad.
“We hope that they will continue to move forward with LNG exports as well,” Sgamma said.
Gas can be sent to allied nations in Europe and Asia as a way to break reliance on hostile nations, such as Russia, she and Republicans on the committee said.
“I’ve heard today that we need to get off our addiction to oil and fossil fuels,” Sgamma said. “That’s kind of like an addiction to food or other necessities of life.”
Generally less damaging to the climate than coal, gas has helped lower emissions in the U.S. in recent decades, she said.
“We’ve done that since 2005,” she said. “We’ve delivered more reductions than wind and solar combined.”
Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. peaked in 2005 before falling. Presidential administrations, including the Biden White House, politicians and industry groups often pick 2005 as the starting point when measuring emissions reductions.
In a survey the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released Wednesday, 59 percent of oil and gas executives said pressure from investors was the “primary reason” publicly traded oil companies were “restraining growth despite high oil prices.”
Fifteen percent of executives pointed to other reasons, largely workforce shortages, limited equipment and supply-chain issues, and 11 percent noted environmental, social and governance issues.
The survey of officials at 132 companies was conducted March 9 through 17, after Russia’s attack.
Katherine Stainken, vice president of policy for the Electrification Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said the reliance on oil “creates tremendous energy security vulnerabilities” due to the control of OPEC nations.
Price shocks are nothing new, she said, adding that electrifying America’s transportation fleet could help brace against surging fuels costs.
“This has happened before,” Stainken said. “This happened in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, again and again and again.”