Energy secretary faces questions during push for nontraditional-energy ideas

Prolific natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota has upended the traditional flow of oil and gas as new areas become hubs for fuel supplies, U.S. energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Monday at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now, the Department of Energy is looking for recommendations on how to get that energy supply to consumers who will use it to heat their homes, power their lights and fuel their vehicles. But at the public meeting Monday morning, some questioned whether the federal government is focusing on fossil fuels at the expense of renewable sources and challenged the speakers on federal subsidies of oil and gas.

Mr. Moniz said the need to find better ways to link supply and demand is evidenced by railroads now being used to transport oil because there are too few pipelines. The use of rail to move crude oil has come under fire in the wake of a number of accidents.

It also was evidenced this past winter, when the polar vortex drove spikes in the price of natural gas in New York and New England, Mr. Moniz said.

“In New England, a major part of that was the lack of infrastructure in getting energy from here to there. Propane in upper Midwest, there was a huge problem, an infrastructure problem,” Mr. Moniz said. “How do you know? The price differential between the two big hubs in Texas and Kansas was huge because you couldn’t move it easily north.”

Mr. Moniz made his remarks during the DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review, which is part of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The meeting in Pittsburgh was one of more than a dozen to be held across the country to gather recommendations on infrastructure improvements.

In a few weeks, the DOE will hold a public meeting in Bismark, N.D.

“Pennsylvania and North Dakota highlight one of the very important features of this shale gas and oil revolution, namely that we are seeing booming production in areas that, at least not in the recent past, have been major centers of production,’” Mr. Moniz said. “With that comes infrastructure challenges that have to catch up with a whole bunch of issues that come with gas and oil flowing in very different directions from source to market.”

During a public comment period, Patricia DeMarco, a visiting research fellow in the Institute for Green Sciences at CMU, questioned whether Marcellus gas is being used as a bridge fuel to renewable or seen as an end in itself.

“The market signals are extremely distorted from a long accumulation of subsidies, incentives and policies that favor fossil fuels over renewable and sustainable fuels,” Ms. DeMarco said. “My concern is that we continue to build and solidify infrastructure on a fossil fuel base without making adequate arrangements for an active transition to a renewable future.”

Mr. Moniz defended the administration’‍s position on renewable energy, saying the president has “been pushing very hard on the issue of fossil subsidies.”

He also cited the DOE’s guarantee of loans to the first five utility scale photovoltaic plants. “Ten more are being supported entirely through private resources, which is the kind of thing we want to do — get something started and get the private sector to pick it up.”

Still, Mr. Moniz said many efforts require statutory change.

“The climate action plan has us pursuing what we can do administratively while hoping that we will be able to work with Congress on statutory change.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who also spoke on the panel, said that many of his constituents are in coal country in Greene and Washington counties.

“They are very concerned as coal mines and coal-fired power plants are shutting down. I’m not a believer that you simply tax one group to their demise,” Mr. Murphy said. “I believe in an all-of-the-above energy policy, and clean coal technology” is part of that.

“I don’t want to get in a circular firing squad where everyone says, ‘‍I want to shoot the other person and make sure my energy source continues to grow.’‍ We need a policy that favors all of those,” Mr. Murphy said. “These are real families with real concerns. When you’re facing poverty, you don’‍t care about the environment anymore and that’s a serious problem.”

This is the first year of the four-year energy review by the DOE. In coming years, the department will also look at power generation, end-use infrastructure and energy efficiency.

Stephanie Ritenbaugh: or 412-263-4910. First Published July 21, 2014 10:16 PM

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