Why Is Elizabeth Warren on the Energy Committee?

She leads progressives on economic justice, but has been quieter on energy and resource issues despite a new panel perch this year.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks about the release of a new report authored by Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz published by the Roosevelt Institute May 12, 2015 in Washington, D,C.
National Journal
July 23, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

When Sen­ate Demo­crats an­nounced their com­mit­tee rosters late last year, one change stood out.

Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts, who boasts a wide pro­gress­ive fol­low­ing for bat­tling Wall Street and free trade deals, had joined the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee. War­ren asked to be on the pan­el, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide.

It was a sur­pris­ing choice. War­ren, in her young Sen­ate ca­reer, has not made en­ergy a top polit­ic­al pri­or­ity on par with her high-pro­file work on eco­nom­ic is­sues like curb­ing Wall Street’s power and stu­dent debt.

And while Mas­sachu­setts is home to an ar­ray of com­pan­ies in the green-en­ergy and ef­fi­ciency space, it’s not a ma­jor en­ergy-pro­du­cing state, doesn’t have the huge swaths of fed­er­al land that fall un­der the com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion, and isn’t home to big, on­go­ing En­ergy De­part­ment-led nuc­le­ar-waste cleanups.

“We had a two-part re­ac­tion,” said one long­time en­vir­on­ment­al lob­by­ist about the news that War­ren had taken a seat on the com­mit­tee. “The first part was, great, Eliza­beth War­ren — she is a polit­ic­al su­per­star on the rise; it’s great to have someone like that on this com­mit­tee.

“The second re­ac­tion was, wow, I won­der what is go­ing to be her spe­cialty. She is not from a West­ern state. She is not from a state that has a lot of pub­lic lands even for an East Coast state. What is she go­ing to cham­pi­on on that com­mit­tee?” the lob­by­ist said.

Sev­en months later, War­ren’s role is still tak­ing shape.

Sure, she’s ad­ded her name to plenty of let­ters on en­ergy and re­source is­sues, and signed onto sev­er­al col­leagues’ bills on en­ergy and pub­lic-lands pro­tec­tion. For in­stance, there was a late June let­ter to the White House from 13 Demo­crats — led by Sens. Ed­ward Mar­key and Robert Men­en­dez — against lift­ing the ban on crude-oil ex­ports.

War­ren, in her Sen­ate ten­ure, has also spoken out re­peatedly on cli­mate change and in fa­vor of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s car­bon-emis­sions rules for power plants, and signed onto let­ters to de­fend and bol­ster them.

But War­ren has been the lead spon­sor of just one en­ergy bill this year, a meas­ure that re­quires an En­ergy De­part­ment study of the cost sav­ings provided by tech­no­lo­gies that make build­ings more ef­fi­cient.

In con­trast, War­ren’s the lead au­thor of sev­er­al big-tick­et pieces of eco­nom­ic-policy le­gis­la­tion, such as pro­pos­als to re­build the reg­u­lat­ory wall between tra­di­tion­al and in­vest­ment bank­ing, and a meas­ure to cre­ate more sched­ule sta­bil­ity and flex­ib­il­ity for low-wage work­ers.

And bey­ond just le­gis­la­tion, War­ren has been a re­lent­less and highly vis­ible stand­ard-bear­er for pro­gress­ives on trade and eco­nom­ic is­sues.

But there is cer­tainly over­lap between en­ergy policy and the core eco­nom­ic is­sues that she’s made the center­piece of her work on the Bank­ing Com­mit­tee and the Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee. For in­stance, New Eng­land fam­il­ies of­ten struggle with high home-heat­ing costs.

Sen. Maria Can­t­well, the com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, says War­ren has a nat­ur­al role on the pan­el. “She is a loud voice on North­east en­ergy is­sues, and she is very in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing the con­sumer,” Can­t­well told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a short in­ter­view.

War­ren will soon have new chances to try to shape the Sen­ate’s work on en­ergy as the com­mit­tee pre­pares to de­bate a wide-ran­ging bill that the pan­el’s lead­ers un­veiled on Wed­nes­day.

Can­t­well worked with War­ren on sev­er­al en­ergy-mar­ket-re­lated pro­vi­sions in the meas­ure. These pro­vi­sions un­der­score the over­lap between en­ergy and War­ren’s on­go­ing mis­sion to give fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors more power to crack down on the fin­an­cial in­dustry.

One would cre­ate an En­ergy De­part­ment-led Work­ing Group On En­ergy Mar­kets that in­cludes par­ti­cip­a­tion from the Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion, the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, and the Com­mod­ity Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion.

The group’s work would in­clude an in­vest­ig­a­tion of “the ef­fect of in­creased fin­an­cial in­vest­ment in en­ergy com­mod­it­ies on en­ergy prices and the en­ergy se­cur­ity of the United States,” and make re­com­mend­a­tions to com­bat “ex­cess­ive” spec­u­la­tion that hurts con­sumers and the eco­nomy.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who was briefly chair­man of the En­ergy pan­el in the last Con­gress, says he’s spoken with War­ren about en­ergy and that the Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat is drawn to is­sues in which “there are sub­stan­tial sums of money that skew the mar­ket and dis­tort mar­ket­place forces.”

The power­ful cor­por­ate in­terests in the en­ergy in­dustry provide a nat­ur­al tar­get for War­ren. Early this year, in a meet­ing to pass a bill that War­ren op­posed to ap­prove the Key­stone XL oil-sands pipeline, War­ren asked why Re­pub­lic­ans had im­me­di­ately turned to Key­stone at the start of the new con­gres­sion­al ses­sion.

“Their first pri­or­ity is to ad­vance a pipeline that means a whole lot to an army of well-paid lob­by­ists and a whole lot to a gi­ant for­eign oil com­pany,” she said.

War­ren’s words show a con­nec­tion between her top polit­ic­al pri­or­it­ies and her more re­cent ar­rival on the com­mit­tee. Here’s War­ren talk­ing about en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency tech­no­lo­gies at a late April hear­ing:

“It seems to me they are a three-fer. They pro­tect the en­vir­on­ment, they fight cli­mate change, they save money for con­sumers. Ac­tu­ally, maybe I should say it’s a four-fer be­cause the en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency in­dustry is cre­at­ing a lot of new jobs, good jobs, in Mas­sachu­setts and else­where across the coun­try,” War­ren said.

One en­vir­on­ment­al­ist pre­dicts that War­ren’s pro­file on en­ergy will only grow.

“In­stead of try­ing to weigh in on everything, Sen­at­or War­ren has really dug in deep on a few is­sues like banks and stu­dent loans, and pushed them hard,” said Ben Schreiber, the cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram dir­ect­or at Friends of the Earth. “She has less ex­per­i­ence with the en­vir­on­ment than she does with bank­ing, but I ex­pect she will even­tu­ally find an is­sue to own on [En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources], and that when she does she will be a vig­or­ous and ef­fect­ive ad­voc­ate.”

War­ren’s of­fice, in re­sponse to ques­tions from Na­tion­al Journ­al about her plans and agenda, poin­ted to a speech she gave late last month at the 15th-an­niversary event for En­vir­on­ment­al En­tre­pren­eurs, a green-ori­ented busi­ness group af­fil­i­ated with the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil.

It’s heavy on her fa­mil­i­ar cri­ti­cisms of tax cuts for the wealthy and de­reg­u­lat­ory zeal. But it also ar­gues that these hall­marks of Re­agan-era “trickle down” eco­nom­ics had bad con­sequences for the cli­mate, such as sty­mie­ing in­vest­ment in R&D and cli­mate-friendly in­fra­struc­ture like mass trans­it.

“Wash­ing­ton is work­ing for power­ful in­terests that tilt the play­ing field so that en­ergy en­tre­pren­eurs and in­nov­at­ors have a harder time get­ting a foothold in the mar­ket. And these power­ful in­terests have a strangle­hold on our polit­ic­al sys­tem,” War­ren said.

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