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Politics

Why Republicans Grilled the Energy Secretary About UFOs

You have to get creative when you allege a “war on energy” during an oil boom.

Jennifer Granholm and UFOs.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When Donald Trump met with a group of oil executives at Mar-a-Lago last month, his message was somewhere between “refreshingly blunt” and “blatant shakedown.” Attendees spilled to The Washington Post that Trump told the executives they should raise a billion dollars for his campaign so he could make them even richer by reducing their taxes and removing regulations on their industry.

One can’t help but wonder if any of them thought to themselves that as appealing as that kind of deal might be, there’s no reason for them to be desperate. After all, the Biden years have actually been quite good for the fossil fuel industry.

That applies to the fossil fuel industry’s political allies as well: While Republicans are appalled at the enormous sums the administration and congressional Democrats have directed to renewable energy development and other climate-focused programs, fossil fuels are doing just fine. In the immediate term, the president’s political opponents can barely find anything to complain about, which was probably key to the Biden administration’s political strategy all along.

Republican frustration was on clear display at a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, where GOP members went through the motions of grilling Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm over what they like to call “the Biden administration’s war on energy.” Their attempts to portray the administration’s throttling the production of fossil fuels were so absurd that at times Granholm seemed to struggle to keep from laughing out loud. One member was upset about the demise of incandescent light bulbs. Another said they “know a guy” who, for some reason, had to pay $8,000 to put an electric vehicle charger in his garage (the secretary was at a loss to explain that). And a third wanted to know whether the DOE is reverse-engineering technology from unidentified aerial phenomena, what we used to refer to call UFOs (the secretary didn’t give much of an answer — clearly she’s in on the conspiracy).

“Can you clarify whether the Department of Energy has been involved in any such efforts either historically or currently to analyze reverse-engineering materials from or related to UAPs?” asked Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida.

“I have no knowledge of that,” Granholm replied.

“There have been documented sightings of metallic spheres over DOE facilities,” Luna continued later. “What investigations have been conducted in regards to these sightings and what conclusions do you guys have about the nature and origins of these objects?”

“I’d be happy to follow up with you on that,” Granholm replied diplomatically.

Predictable congressional buffoonery notwithstanding, this is the curious situation in which we find ourselves: On one hand, this administration has done more to advance green energy than any that came before. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act was the most significant piece of climate legislation in history, and if the administration’s climate initiatives are successful, this could be the key turning point in America’s contribution to climate change. On the other hand, the U.S. has never exported more oil than it did last year and overtook Australia and Qatar to become the world’s leading producer of liquified natural gas. The fossil fuel industry has been booming since Joe Biden took office, and still is.

The immediate topic of the Oversight Committee hearing was the administration’s decision to pause new approvals for liquid natural gas export projects so it can complete a review of the analysis that underpins those approvals. The pause doesn’t affect existing exports or projects under construction, but it has been hailed by many climate activists as an important step in the right direction.

The administration has framed the pause in the context of its climate efforts, and the environmental impact of LNG is complicated; while burning gas creates lower emissions than burning coal or oil, the processes involved in exporting LNG — lowering the temperature of the gas until it becomes a liquid, moving it onto boats, moving the boats across the ocean, turning the liquid back into a gas — create their own emissions that make LNG not a particularly climate-friendly option.

In addition, there’s the question of environmental justice. “It is deeply disturbing to me that fossil fuel production is at a record high under the current administration,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib at the hearing, noting the high rates of asthma and cancer in the area she grew up in and represents in Detroit. “LNG exports perpetuate, I think, systematic environmental racism,” she said, noting that the processing facilities are often sited in areas that are mostly minority and poor.

Nevertheless, the temporary pause on new approvals won’t hinder the booming LNG industry much, especially in the short run. As Granholm said, “We have exploded in our authorizations. This pause only applies to new ones coming down the pike.” The U.S. exported 88.9 million metric tons of LNG in 2023; just eight years ago exports were almost nothing.

And yet keep repeating “War on energy!” knowing that facts seldom play too much of a role in political persuasion. Polling shows that more voters trust Donald Trump on a range of questions related to energy production and prices, and the imaginary lack of fossil fuel production is such an urgent problem to solve that Trump has promised that he will be a dictator on “day one” in order to do two things: “I want to close the border, and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

It can appear to be the best of both worlds for Republicans: They get the fossil fuel production they want, and outside of a hearing room where they can be directly shot down, they can still make at least some political hay out of energy. They would probably add that while oil and gas production is up at the moment, Democrats are still hoping to phase out fossil fuels over the long run. Which is true.

Democrats have the harder political task: They want to show that they’re addressing climate change, but in a way that doesn’t cause any inconvenience or higher retail prices for gasoline. That has always been part of the green energy dream — that we could get more energy for less money, even as we’re saving the planet. In some ways that’s what’s happening as the price of renewables has continued to drop. But all it takes is a momentary spike in gasoline prices to send angry voters back into the arms of whoever promises to bring them down.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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