Lawmakers see alternatives to Russian energy in their districts

Members of Congress advocate affordable energy solutions at home

Sen. John Barrasso blames President Joe Biden for rising gas prices during a news conference earlier this month. The Wyoming Republican is among lawmakers eyeing alternatives to Russian energy at home.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John Barrasso blames President Joe Biden for rising gas prices during a news conference earlier this month. The Wyoming Republican is among lawmakers eyeing alternatives to Russian energy at home. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 29, 2022 at 5:57pm

With gas prices high and the world looking for alternatives to oil and gas from Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, some lawmakers are finding solutions in their own districts.

Russia’s incursion and the linked disruption of energy markets highlighted a long-running debate in Washington over the vulnerability of the U.S. and many of its allies to potential adversaries that feed the industrial world’s appetite for energy from oil and gas.

Republicans and fossil-fuel advocates have responded with calls to increase domestic oil and gas production by rolling back Biden administration policies that aim to wean the economy off of energy sources that contribute to climate change.

Democrats and environmentalists mark the invasion as a violent warning that it is time to shed the world’s reliance on fossil fuels not only because of climate change but because of the wealth and leverage it provides to oil- and gas-rich countries that don’t share modern Western values.

But some lawmakers in both parties are also focused on what they see as affordable alternative energy solutions provided by industries in their own districts, and several have introduced legislation to aid those industries.

“The time is now to permanently remove all Russian energy from the American marketplace,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a statement March 17, when he announced legislation to halt the U.S. import of Russian-made uranium. “Banning Russian uranium imports will further defund Russia’s war machine, help revive American uranium production and increase our national security.”

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill, saying that “Wyoming has more than enough uranium to fill” the void of lost uranium imports. At a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Lummis asked Ray Mabus, the former secretary of the Navy, about the benefits of cutting off uranium imports from Russia.

“I think cutting out all Russian energy revenues is incredibly important,” Mabus said.

Reps. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., Adrian Smith, R-Neb., Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, filed legislation in the House on Thursday to ban American imports of Russian-made uranium.

Sixteen percent of U.S. uranium imports came from Russia in 2020, behind Canada and Kazakhstan, each responsible for 22 percent, and ahead of Australia (11 percent), Uzbekistan (8 percent) and Namibia (5 percent), according to the Energy Information Administration.

Wyoming has the largest reserves of uranium — a metal found in rocks — of any American state. The U.S. imports most of the uranium that it uses as fuel for nuclear fission.  

Less than 1 percent of the uranium used in 2019 for U.S. nuclear power plants came from domestic sources, EIA data shows. 

More than two-thirds of the world’s uranium production comes from Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, responsible in 2020 for 41 percent, 13 percent and 8 percent of output, respectively, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group.

At the same hearing, which focused on the future of U.S. energy in light of the war in Ukraine, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said carbon-capture technology could help the country pursue a lower carbon future and maintain steady electrical supply.

“We need to do more of that,” Cramer said, citing Minnkota Power Cooperative, which operates in eastern North Dakota, as “on the very forefront” of carbon-capture technology.

Reconciliation support

The House-passed budget reconciliation proposal includes $9.7 billion for an Agriculture Department program that would include loans and grants for electrical co-ops to purchase renewable energy or carbon capture systems. The measure remains stalled in the Senate.

A still-nascent technology, carbon capture broadly refers to the use of mechanical hardware at fossil fuel plants, such as coal-fired power stations, to contain greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere. 

A related strategy, called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, requires trapped carbon to be injected underground for permanent storage. 

There were 24 operating CCS facilities worldwide in 2020, according to the Global CCS Institute, half of which were in the U.S.

In the House, Reps. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, Angie Craig, D-Minn., and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., filed legislation to establish a tax credit for selling or blending fuels that contain ethanol, a colorless alcohol derived from agricultural feedstocks like corn, sugar cane or grass.

Processing plants that produce ethanol, which is required through an amendment to the Clean Air Act to be used as a transportation fuel source, are concentrated in the Midwest.

“Bolstering our domestic energy production through policies that prioritize the increased use of America’s ethanol and other biofuels will ensure a reliable and stable source of energy for years to come,” the Iowa delegation wrote in a letter March 8 to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “As the Administration addresses the significant market and supply disruptions related to President Putin’s war on Ukraine, we urge you to consider policies that encourage the production of domestic renewable fuels.”

The EPA oversees the Renewable Fuel Standard, which allows the sale of what is known as E15 fuel — gasoline with up to 15 percent ethanol — to be sold during winter months only. 

A bipartisan group of Midwestern senators has a separate bill, also introduced after Russia’s invasion, that would allow E15 to be sold any month.

“This would give families a significantly cheaper fuel option at the pump, saving more than 50 cents per gallon,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday. Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Amy Klubuchar, D-Minn., are also sponsors.

E15 has been barred from being sold during summer months over concerns it contributes to smog — ground-level ozone that forms when industrial emissions mix with other chemicals, known as “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs, in sunlight.

The campaign to make E15 available in any month hit a roadblock in January, when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the ethanol industry challenging a lower court’s ruling. 

That ruling, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, had vacated a 2019 EPA rule that would allow year-round E15 sales.

Growth Energy, a trade group for the ethanol industry, announced a television ad campaign Wednesday that will run through May in the Washington, D.C., region. It urges the Biden administration to lift restrictions on the sale of E15 fuel.

“Biofuels are a homegrown, plant-based solution that can further reduce our dependence on foreign oil and shield American drivers from the volatility of the oil market,” said Emily Skor, the group’s CEO.

The advertisement ends with the narrator saying, “Mr. President, more American biofuels means lower gas prices.”