What I Learned from Senator Al Franken

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on April 18, 2016 - 9:36am

In a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining on the Bureau of Land Management’s venting and flaring rule, Senator Al Franken felt compelled to use his five minutes of allotted time for questions to lecture me about the government. He also used the time to chide his fellow committee members that they are not sufficiently energized about climate change as he thinks they should be. How dare they consider the economic costs!

I knew Senator Franken was bothered by my very existence on the panel defending the evil oil and natural gas industry, and was at the hearing to use it as a chance to rail on climate change. However, I didn’t anticipate that the thing to set him off would be my rather uncontroversial statement that the fracking revolution is more the result of private sector innovation and investment than government funding of some basic R&D.

But after listening to him lecture, I realized where he’s coming from. No wonder he was upset by my temerity. In his world, everything emanates from the federal government. It’s not the tens of thousands of oil and natural gas workers who’ve invested, experimented, adapted technology to different formations, and figured out how to make fracking viable on a large scale who are the key to the fracking revolution; it’s basic research done by the Department of Energy that is the most important.

That attitude applies to the methane rules that are a primary goal of the Administration and were the subject of the hearing. Senator Franken was unmoved by my point that the rule, by delivering a scant 0.0092% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at a huge cost, is actually counterproductive to the President’s climate change goals because it will discourage natural gas production. Since the wellsite is a small source of GHG emissions (1.07%) but enables greater use of natural gas in the electricity sector where GHG emissions are otherwise ten times higher, constraining production too much through regulation puts very real climate solutions at risk.

To Sen. Franken, what’s important is not that industry has unlocked huge resources that enable increased natural gas electricity generation, cutting back significant GHG emissions. It doesn’t matter that the United States has delivered more GHG reductions than any other industrialized country in the absence of federal regulation or climate change treaties.

GHG Reductions

It doesn’t matter that natural gas is the primary reason the United States has achieved these significant GHG reductions, as recognized by the International Energy Administration. It doesn’t matter that natural gas has delivered 59% more GHG reductions than wind and solar energy, combined, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

CO2 Reductions by Source

No, what matters is government-sanctioned action and government-sanctioned action alone. We see this from the president as well. Rather than touting American leadership on climate change as being derived from the actions of private citizens working independently to deliver real climate change benefits, the focus is on government regulation and treaties, no matter how small the benefit. By Senator Franken’s math, the 0.0092% reduction in GHGs from a regulation is more important than the 11% reduction in overall U.S. GHG emissions that the oil and natural gas industry primarily has delivered.

If it doesn’t come directly from the federal government, it just doesn’t exist.