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Today’s Senate Hearing Was a Pretty Great Example of Climate Policy-Making

Honest debate — can you imagine!

David M. Turk.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In the sort of happy coincidence that is only possible in Washington, D.C., two consequential linguistic debates unfolded on Thursday morning within half a mile of each other. The first, in the Supreme Court of the United States, commanded the attention of major TV networks and political pundits, warranted a live blog from The New York Times, and aimed, in part, to differentiate between what constitutes an “insurrection” versus a mere “riot.”

A five-minute walk away, in room 366 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a similar debate was unfolding — albeit after some live-stream technical difficulties and a brief protest by the climate group Third Act. The event didn’t elicit quite the same level of national intrigue as the hullabaloo on the other side of Constitution Avenue; in fact, I never saw more than 173 other people watching the feed along with me at any given point. The senators’ debate, though, was an important one, and it centered largely on the meaning of the word “pause.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Republicans on the House Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee had a similar debate earlier this week about the Biden administration’s pause on approving new permits for facilities to export liquified natural gas. But while that hearing had been a silly (and at times, infuriating) example of the GOP’s contorted defenses of the oil and gas industry, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the LNG pause felt a little more meaningful. Ironically, that’s partially because nothing really was said.

Called by cantankerous West Virginia Democrat and committee Chairman Joe Manchin, the Senate hearing took place in two parts: The first and most interesting saw Deputy U.S. Energy Secretary David Turk make the first on-the-record defense of the export terminal pause by a Biden administration official. In contrast, the second part called as witnesses a European gas executive and an LNG industry advocate, each of whom made predictable noises about the threat of energy volatility in the face of revanchist Russia.

Though Manchin, in his opening remarks, said he “strongly” urged the Biden administration to reverse the export terminal permitting pause “immediately,” he and other skeptical senators appeared to be at least partially open to Turk’s opinion on everything from whether “it is wise to give our allies and partners and neutral parties across the world an excuse to do business with our enemies” to how long the DOE’s re-evaluation of what it means for a new export terminal to be “in the public interest” would take.

They appeared less satisfied with Turk’s unwillingness to give them firm answers, however. Regarding LNG export terminals supporting European energy security, Turk explained, “We need to look at how much we’ve already authorized, how much we’re already in the process of authorizing, and compare that to what our allies absolutely need.” When pressed about a timeline for the length of the pause and the DOE’s decision-making, he committed to “months, not years” but stressed “there are a lot of questions,” and rigorous analysis takes time. Later, James Watson, a witness and executive of Eurogas, suggested Turk had been unforthcoming because he’d been “asked to explain the unexplainable, which is not easy to do.”

In fact, Turk’s deferrals underscored why a pause is so necessary, something further drawn out during a rare back-and-forth between senators following a comment by Manchin. “If we were talking about considering a pause, this is a great, great panel for it. But you have an executive order doing a pause: that’s the difference,” Manchin said.

“I think it’s just the opposite, Mr. Chairman,” Maine Democrat Angus King pushed back. The DOE is “doing their job and their job is to see that these projects are in the public interest. There’s no way to do that without the data.”

“You can’t do the pause first, though,” Manchin said.

“Why not?” King responded. If you don’t pause first, “then you’re approving projects when you find out, five years from now, that it was a disaster.”

There are a lot of valid and complicated questions about LNG, which will take time to answer. But hot air loves a vacuum, especially in Washington, and Republicans have seized the opportunity to spin the pause as a “ban” or a “stop” — as in, “basically, you’re stopping things,” in the words of Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. But “nobody’s talking about stopping,” King later pointed out during the second witness panel after Turk had left. “We’re talking about taking a period of time in order to do the necessary research.”

That, after all, is the unsexy truth of climate policymaking: It isn’t exciting. There aren’t cameras waiting outside for shouted questions. It’s not covered by liveblogs or cable news chyrons. Maybe only 173 people will even bother to take time out of their mornings to troubleshoot where the live stream has migrated to when it doesn’t appear on the committee website. So, while “pause” is an easy word to throw around and even easier to exaggerate, what it should mean in practice is todo the math and do it right.

Turk repeatedly said the DOE welcomes debate, including with a forthcoming public comment period on its findings. Even Manchin seemed to embrace the disagreements and nuances of the topic at hand. “I enjoyed that!” he exclaimed on a hot mic after Turk’s testimony and his back-and-forth with King.

That doesn’t mean anyone changed anyone else’s mind on Thursday; I don’t think Manchin was more dissuaded than when he woke up this morning that the Biden administration had “put the cart before the horse” even in simply taking a break on LNG approvals. But in a rare absence of political theater on the Hill, a government official said there’s still more to learn and debate, and everyone seemed to agree.


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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