Greg Walden: Foreign energy problems remain

By Congressman Greg Walden,

Lost in the din of the debate this summer over how to improve and strengthen America’s healthcare system is the other national crisis that America can no longer afford to ignore: our dependence on foreign energy.  Twelve months ago, skyrocketing oil prices drove the energy question to the front of the national consciousness. We were importing 60 percent of our oil, shipping $1.6 billion every day outside our borders to regimes —like Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela — that don’t like us all that much.
Republicans demanded a comprehensive, all-of-the-above energy solution — one that looked inward for solutions by utilizing sensible energy conservation and tapping our tremendous domestic energy resources.

And then the global economy entered a deep recession. With it, the price of gas plummeted. Rightly, the country shifted its focus to creating pathways out of this economic mess. My home state of Oregon has been hit particularly hard, with an unemployment rate of 12.2 percent that trails only Michigan as the nation’s highest.

According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of regular today is about $2.46. That’s drastically lower than the record-high nationwide average of $4.11 on July 17, 2008.

But just because the price of oil has dropped, that doesn’t mean the underlying factors that drove the energy crisis last summer are no longer a problem. Quite the opposite: Once the economy recovers the tight margins between supply and demand that cause high prices will return.

Even with the down economy, we are still importing on average over 9.5 million barrels of crude oil every day, according to the Energy Information Administration. At $60 per barrel, that’s a considerable amount of treasure heading out to countries willing to produce energy and reap the good jobs that come along with it.

America’s smarter energy future must include a plan to get us off foreign oil, provide the energy resources necessary to fuel the country’s drive to remain the most powerful economy in the world, and do the right thing for the environment at the same time.

Last year, I introduced the Secure Energy for America Act, a comprehensive bill that would give Americans access to the significant energy reserves in the deep ocean waters far from our coasts, and use the billions of dollars of federal revenues that would be created to fund development of the renewable energies critical to achieving energy independence: wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and woody biomass.

More than 85 percent of the oil and gas resources off the continental United States could be accessed in environmentally responsible ways, but remain off-limits because of federal laws. We can and should produce American energy, help pay down the historic debt being racked by the Democratic-led Congress, and pay for significant investments in renewable energy at the same time.

Woody biomass, for example, holds exciting potential for the rural West, which is dominated by forested lands in the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

We could put people to work on public lands, thinning out unnaturally overstocked forests that are ready to burn at catastrophic levels at any minute and spew huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The woody waste that comes off as a result could then be turned into energy — creating a new economic engine in the rural West, where the recession has hit forested communities particularly hard.

According to the International Energy Agency, biomass energy accounts for about 18 percent of Sweden’s total energy supply, where they have created 30,000 biomass-related jobs and reduced their carbon dioxide output by 9 percent between 1992 and 2007.

It’s good for the environment, good for job production, and good for energy independence, and we should be doing it here.

Unfortunately, the “cap and tax” bill passed by the House specifically excludes most woody biomass from federal lands from counting as renewable energy. The bill also places baffling restraints on hydropower, an energy source with zero carbon emissions and a critical backup source for the wind power infrastructure in the West.

Perhaps most disappointing about the cap and tax bill is it does nothing in the short term to begin weaning the country off countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for our energy supply.

Quite simply, Americans want us doing everything possible to get off foreign energy. That means energy production on American lands and aggressively pursuing all renewable energy technologies.

When the Democratic leadership decides it’s finally time to launch a serious and deliberative effort to increase America’s domestic energy production, House Republicans stand ready and eager to help.

Walden is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and ranking member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

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