THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
Digging for agreement on energy
How Rep. Whitfield is using his chairmanship to push progress on energy policy in Washington
Kentucky's First District Congressman Ed Whitfield, a Hopkinsville native, wants this year in Washington to be different. In a nation that's still deeply divided politically, he's trying to find common ground to develop sensible energy policies for the whole nation.
It won't be easy. Many members of President Obama's political party favor using more solar and wind to generate electricity. The president's appointees to cabinet positions and federal agencies seem to think fossil fuels cause more problems than they solve. They favor increasingly strict regulations for these forms of energy production.
It's no secret that Congressman Ed Whitfield likes coal. A Hopkinsville native first elected to Congress in 1994, his goal then was to represent the interests of the people of Kentucky's western coalfields.
And it still is. When he accepted the Washington Coal Club's 2012 Annual Achievement Award, Rep. Whitfield said, "Coal is one of America's most abundant and important domestic energy resources. It is an honor to be recognized as a champion of coal and low-cost electricity. Without coal, consumers will face increased energy costs, making America less competitive in the global marketplace."
A well-rounded expert
But he isn't just a one-topic guy.
Although he began his congressional service as an advocate for coal, over the years Rep. Whitfield has become widely known as a multifaceted energy expert. He's made it his business to become well-informed about all aspects of energy supplies and use, everything from transportation fuels to nuclear waste storage to electricity. He's especially careful to dig down to grassroots levels to see exactly how energy laws and regulations affect consumer prices and economic activity.
Members of Congress don't just vote "no" or "yes" on laws. They craft the laws, choosing what words to use in them, what time periods to include, and hundreds of other details. Then after laws are enacted, the members of Congress must perform "oversight." That concept, spelled out in the Constitution, requires them to continuously examine how wellâ€”or badlyâ€”those laws are being used in everyday situations, and to recommend adjustments when and where they are needed. Much of the work is done through committees.
Once again serving as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, Rep. Whitfield is also a member of the Subcommittee on the Environment and Economy, and a member of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.
That makes for a very busy schedule, and Rep. Whitfield thinks that's changing the way people interact. "Things are hectic here," he says, "and members of Congress don't have many opportunities to socialize and get to know each other that well. That presents some real challenges."
Amid the hustle and bustle to get to the next meeting on time, there are fewer opportunities in the hallways to use the friendly art of persuasion, the stock-in-trade for most politicians. So Rep. Whitfield believes in the value of a practical strategyâ€”providing facts, and plenty of them.
To help members of Congress understand the science and engineering that makes the power grid work, Rep. Whitfield sets up as many opportunities as he can to bring in energy business experts, people who can explain the technical and financial details of putting environmental laws into action.
During July, August, and November last year, Chairman Whitfield hosted three Clean Air Act forums. Those bipartisan discussions gave members of Congress an inside look at what individual state officials must do in their day-to-day work to carry out the provisions of existing air quality laws.
Security and innovation
This year, Chairman Whitfield began a new set of informative events, a series of three hearings on the topic "American Energy Security and Innovation."
Rep. Whitfield says, "These hearings are designed so that it's not the Congress trying to assert itself as to what needs to be done. Instead, we are having these hearings first so that the experts can tell us from their perspective where are we today. We've invited fuel producers, people who generate electricity, and officials from the various regional transmission organizations to talk to us and give us a broad view of the electricity market in America."
This sort of ground truth is particularly important now. Many parts of the national and world energy scene have changed dramatically since Congress passed the comprehensive Energy Act of 2007. Smaller pieces of legislation enacted since then and new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that sharply discourage coal use are already affecting long-term planning in every region of the country.
Using natural gas instead of coal is often seen as a bridge to relying more heavily on solar and wind facilities. But figuring out when and how much electricity such renewable sources can realistically be expected to contribute to the power grid is still a work in progress.
The first hearing, held in early February, focused on why energy efficiency, including the continued use of coal, will be vital to the production of affordable and reliable electricity for all parts of the American economy. Speakers also explored the role advanced technological innovations can play in keeping coal in the mix as a major provider of electric power.
Where to get the energy scoop online
You do not have to live in Congressman Ed Whitfield's district to follow his energy work. Visit this Web site to read news releases, and sign up for an e-mail newsletter: www.whitfield.house.gov/media-center.
For information about the activities of the various House energy committees, visit this Web site: http://energycommerce.house.gov and sign up for additional e-mail newsletters.