May 26, 2015

Historically Bipartisan Law Offers a Template for Energy Progress

As committees in both the House and the Senate begin to consider a slew of legislative energy proposals, one promising area for potential bipartisan collaboration is coming into focus – the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA.  Today, the Center for American Progress is releasing a new report that recommends how to amend PURPA to help address the pressing energy challenges we face today.  

The electricity sector in the United States is experiencing a period of dynamic change.  Technological advancements are making energy available from new and innovative sources and offering an array of tools for managing and understanding the way we use energy.  Market forces are pushing natural gas in and backing coal out, while renewable energy is increasing its share of the national market. Regulations, like the proposed Clean Power Plan, are charting a course toward a low carbon future.  And the reality of climate change is barging onto the scene for the electricity sector – bringing challenges such as straining water supplies relied upon for cooling coal-fired and nuclear power plants and turning hydroelectric turbines.   

Both Democrats and Republicans have introduced legislation to establish new so-called “must consider” standards under PURPA. These standards acknowledge that electric retail markets have historically been regulated at the state level, but some issues are of such importance that the federal government has a strong interest in ensuring they are addressed.  

Over the past four decades, Congress has periodically amended PURPA to call upon the state public utility commissions, or PUCs, to consider adjusting their electricity policies using an open and evidence-based review process. By simply requiring that PUCs “must consider” the merits of various policies through public proceedings, PURPA has triggered states to adopt smart policies that have helped save energy and promote renewable energy. The last three times PURPA was amended in this fashion, it enjoyed bipartisan support and was signed by a Republican president. 

In light of today’s challenges, the CAP report recommends that Congress amend PURPA to require state PUCs to consider three policy standards.  First, PUC’s should consider boosting energy efficiency efforts through technology and regulation.  Second, they should consider establishing policies to encourage utilities to use clean energy to reduce pollution. Finally, the state PUC’s should consider ensuring utilities develop the resilience to reliably function in the future.   

Prompting states to carefully consider the merits of these policies would be a modest but important step forward.  It would help American families by encouraging cleaner, more affordable and more reliable power.  These policies will help the electric utilities as well by facilitating the coming transition to a low-carbon future.  And amending PURPA will help Congress, by showing that heated rhetoric can be put aside, science can be acknowledged, and steps can be taken to deliver a more sustainable future for our children. 

Last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was interested in putting aside divisive messaging efforts in order to build support around a bipartisan energy bill.  The chairman even indicated that energy legislation could take steps to address climate change by cutting pollution and increasing energy efficiency.  For anyone interested in making progress on the nation’s energy challenges, this was welcome news. 

The 114th Congress may not be able to deliver policies most sought by either the left or the right -- a comprehensive climate change bill or approval of new tar sands pipelines -- but the chance to send an unambiguous policy signal that carbon pollution must be reduced swiftly by boosting energy efficiency and promoting renewable energy is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.  

In the coming weeks, some are likely to argue that policies to address climate change and encourage clean energy are too controversial to pursue. They'll argue for an approach that doubles down on the energy approaches of the past and asks us to accept the attendant increase in carbon pollution.  This is where Murkowski’s approach will be tested.  For the good of everyone, let’s hope she can lead the Senate to a bipartisan accomplishment.

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