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Key US lawmaker tells EEI officials how climate action groundwork is being laid

Citing the current administration's refusal to address climate change and his belief in the need for action, the head of a House subcommittee described how he is laying the groundwork for passing a bill once the political climate changes.

Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, also discussed some discreet legislative steps that could gain bipartisan support even during the Trump administration.

"We must develop a plan of attack when there isn't a means to get it done so that when the political climate ... is ripe, we're ready to go. We have no time to waste," Tonko said June 10 during a panel discussion at the Edison Electric Institute's annual convention in Philadelphia.

The discussion was framed as a conversation about the Green New Deal initiative but ended up centered more generally on what can actually be done to address climate change.

Thomas Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Energy Inc., kicked off the discussion by recounting the progress the energy industry already has made in cleaning up emissions as a result of regulation, economics and public policy.

However, Farrell lamented the lack of one set of national rules for addressing climate change. He detailed some of the problems his utility has had in responding to the consequences of clean energy policies, or the absence thereof, set by neighboring states. He also noted the difficulty of transitioning to a largely zero emissions economy, including the need to increase renewable energy production by more than fivefold.

Acknowledging those challenges, Tonko stressed the importance of not "wast[ing] a lot of energy" addressing the rhetoric surrounding the Green New Deal but instead focusing on what can actually be done to address climate change.

For instance, he cited several policies he believes could gain bipartisan support even in the current political environment, including providing money for clean energy research and infrastructure, grid modernization and energy efficiency. He also said investment tax credits could be provided for storage and renewable facilities.

To Aliya Haq, director of the Federal Policy Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the goals of the Green New Deal are not "actually that crazy," though she acknowledged they are ambitious.

Has the rhetoric changed?

Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a group devoted to advancing conservative policies that accelerate clean energy innovation, said he has noticed a big change over the past six months in the rhetoric surrounding climate change, at least on Capitol Hill. There, he said, most lawmakers have transitioned to a general consensus that climate change is real, that humans are contributing to it, and that significant federal action is needed.

Thus, Powell said, a vigorous discussion now can be had on the appropriate solutions. And to do that, he continued, policymakers have to look at "the brutal facts," including that the world as a whole is not making progress on lowering carbon emissions. One reason for the lack of headway is that many developing countries will choose economic development over clean energy development, which is why countries including China and India are still building coal-fired power plants, he said.

While some may insist that such development means the U.S. can do little to change the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, Powell disagreed. He insisted that the U.S. can have a large impact by becoming a test bed for energy innovation, much as it did with respect to the shale gas revolution and the emergence of U.S. gas-fired power plants as a far cheaper alternative than coal-fired plants. Thus, Powell said, federal lawmakers should find ways to spur additional innovation in areas such as energy storage and nuclear innovation, which could then be sold to the rest of the world.

During a subsequent question-and-answer session, Tonko also took a global view, insisting that the U.S. needs to partner with the world community in trying to address climate change. And if the federal government will not lead on the issue, he said, states, local governments and U.S. corporations will be under increasing pressure, especially by millennials, to take action on their own.

In addition to the short-term initiatives he described earlier, Tonko said Congress needs to have in-depth talks with a wide range of parties to build a consensus on the proper solutions in order to set the stage for more long-term actions. Lawmakers should be careful, though, not to repeat the mistake Republicans made in trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act without having anything ready to replace it, Tonko said.

"I want to say we brought ... the largest amount of stakeholders that we could together, from labor to the industry, to business, to environmentalists, we came together, we hammered away, and these are the directions we're taking," Tonko told S&P Global after the panel discussion ended. "Washington needs to provide certainty, predictability, and stability for the communities to respond."

Possible solutions

During the question-and-answer session, Ferrell discussed the idea of banning all cars from the roadways one day a week. While he acknowledged that no one would agree to such a move, he stressed that doing so could make a dramatic difference in combating global warming and challenged the other panelists to identify one action they would like to see implemented that could have a similar impact.

For Tonko, that action would be to implement an economywide carbon tax. But recognizing that putting a price on carbon will take some time, Tonko also emphasized the need for more short-term actions.

Several of the other panelists also detailed the difficulties of establishing a carbon tax, with Haq noting that researchers have found that even those who express the most concern about climate change do not want to pay an extra 25 cents for a gallon of gas in the form of a carbon tax.

Powell said the answer is to make clean energy cheaper through such methods as well-targeted tax credits instead of making traditional energy more expensive. He also said nuclear power, especially from plants using new technologies, needs to make up a significant portion of the world's energy mix. He noted that just 55 nuclear sites provide about 20% of U.S. electricity.

But Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president, director and senior fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said nuclear power is just too expensive. She also said policymakers need to start having conservations with people about the changes that will be needed to address climate change and about how they will be a lot better off because of those changes.