House Republicans took aim at the country’s bedrock environmental policy in their first meeting in charge of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, painting a bleak picture of the energy sector under President Biden and pushing for sweeping action to boost gas production.
“We need to be doing more to secure and unleash American energy,” Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said during the six-hour hearing.
Republicans pushed for federal agencies to simplify the permitting and assessment process that they blame for curbing growth of the energy industry and infrastructure, with many members backing a rewrite of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was enacted in 1970.
Democrats largely spent their time lauding the achievements of the $2.2 trillion Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, which included billions in renewable energy and electric vehicle subsidies as part of the largest climate change investment in U.S. history.
“Our path to true energy security is not to double down on oil and gas,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said. “Despite the pain of these price fluctuations, Republicans continue to propose the same false solution: more oil and gas.”
Earlier this month, the House passed two bills limiting use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which the Biden administration relied on to help relieve gas price woes last year. Committee Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called the two bills “misguided.”
Republican committee members blamed high gas prices over the past year on the Biden administration and derided Democratic efforts to subsidize production of solar and wind generators. Energy experts believe high gas prices are mostly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rising global prices, and that the president has little impact on the gas market.
Paul Dabbar, an undersecretary of Energy under former President Trump, said under the previous administration “the U.S. became the undisputed dominant country in energy.”
“But this balanced approach has taken a detour, and we’re back to asking Riyadh, Caracas and Tehran for their help … As we confront the challenges of the energy market today, we’d do well to remember the ingredients that made us so successful not so long ago.”
The main target of the Republican criticisms was the NEPA, which requires energy projects to produce detailed environmental impact assessments before proceeding with construction. Advocates argue it has prevented projects which would destroy the environment and has mitigated the potential damage of others.
When asked the single best thing Congress could do to help energy expansion, both Dabbar and energy executive Robert McNally pointed to re-writing NEPA. Their sentiment was echoed by multiple Republican members, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).
Crenshaw spoke about the Ten West Transmission Line, a 125-mile high voltage power line between California and Arizona, which began planning in 2016 and is scheduled to go online in 2025, a timeline he blamed on NEPA regulations.
“That’s nearly 10 years start-to-finish, nearly 4 years of which was just to get the environmental impact statement approved,” Crenshaw said. “We put a man on the moon in less time than that! Does that seem like a healthy permitting and regulatory system to anyone? Surely not.”
He also questioned the necessity of ecological permits that protect certain plants and wildlife.
“In Nevada, we couldn’t build a lithium mine because of some useless plant called Tiehm’s buckwheat. I’m not kidding, look it up,” he said. “In Oregon, we can’t mind lithium because of a sage grouse, which is basically just a fancy version of a chicken.”
Tiehm’s buckwheat was declared an endangered species in December. Environmentalists believe the two lithium mines could make both the buckwheat and sage grouse species extinct. The Nevada project will still go forward after the Department of Energy offered a $700 million loan for the mine.
Republicans found some support among Democrats in their complaints about NEPA, with Peters agreeing that it was often putting the brakes on expanding electricity infrastructure.
“Over the last decade, we’ve built just 1800 miles of (high voltage transmission lines) because each one takes more than 10 years to complete, and seven of those ten years are just for planning and permitting,” Peters said.
“We have NEPA to thank for a great deal of environmental preservation, but its implementation is inevitably slow.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) led a push for infrastructure permitting reform in the Senate during negotiations over the Inflation Reduction Act last year, which he is still attempting to get passed in the new congress.
Democrats on Tuesday also blasted the oil industry’s record profits this year given the high prices of oil and gas worldwide. ExxonMobil made $55.7 billion in 2022, a record for the company.
“The profits of oil and gas companies, to be very candid, drive me insane,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said.
“Some of our colleagues on the other side suggest that this is a necessary evil … but then you see how they’re using these profits, and we see that Chevron announced that it would be spending $75 billion to buy back its own shares and only investing $12 billion into its business to increase production.”
A representative from the White House echoed Sarbanes’s sentiment Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s outrageous that Exxon has posted a new record for Western oil company profits after the American people were forced to pay such high prices at the pump amidst Putin’s invasion,” the White House said in a statement.
“It’s even more baffling that House Republicans today chose to continue echoing the talking points of the Big Oil lobby.”