New U.S. House Natural Resources chair opposes limits on fossil fuel development
(Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
The incoming chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee wants to allow more mining and believes technology — not limitations on fossil fuel production — is the best way to address climate change.
As part of their organization of the chamber they now control, U.S. House Republicans selected Arkansas’ Bruce Westerman to lead the panel that oversees the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service and has a major role in shaping federal energy and environmental policy.
Its power, though, will be severely checked for at least the next two years by a Democratic Senate and president.
In an interview with States Newsroom, Westerman, a forester with a background in engineering, said his direction for the panel would depart from that of Democrats.
He’d rather focus on technology — including nuclear energy, carbon sequestration and biochar, a 2,500-year-old technique of heating wood, manure and other biomass to create carbon charcoal with multiple uses — to reduce carbon emissions and atmospheric buildup, than on limiting industry.
Westerman also said he’d work to open more mining development to gather resources like cobalt, nickel, copper and others needed to build electric vehicles and additional tools of an energy transition, though he added electric vehicles’ potential to reduce carbon emissions was overstated.
Congress should have a role in shaping a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, he said, but lawmakers should be mindful that it’s a global issue and that developing countries are not trading their own economic growth to limit emissions –— and perhaps the United States shouldn’t either.
“We can’t wreck our economy for something that’s not going to be a valid solution,” he said.
The following interview, conducted by phone on Jan. 26, has been condensed and edited for clarity.
States Newsroom: Just to start out, what are your priorities for the committee’s work this Congress?
Bruce Westerman: You may or may not be aware of our Commitment to America (House Republicans’ proposed agenda heading into the 2022 midterms) that we put out. Part of that is energy security, national security, energy independence.
And that’s really a broad subject. It involves not just oil and gas, but also all the mining and critical minerals that are needed for the electrification that’s being proposed and ties in with Chinese supply chains.
So there’s a lot of things tied up in our Commitment to America that the Natural Resources Committee will have a role in. Energy and mining is a huge one of those.
The United States has been blessed with natural resources. There’s been a mentality that we’re going to lock those resources up and not use them — kind of a not-in-my-backyard mentality — mainly coming from the left. But the fact is that if we’re not producing them here, they’re being produced somewhere else in the world and they’re being produced in a less environmentally friendly way, and less environmental, health and safety regulations on it.
SN: Are you talking about the rare earth metals or other types of mining? Or what in particular?
BW: All of the above.
If you look at China in particular, and their supply, the amount of rare earths and other minerals that they mined and supply to the world, they’re almost on a different scale on the charts. And we’re very dependent upon products that are made with processed minerals out of China.
We still have a large part of our economy that’s based on that. But I think it’s pretty low compared to the Chinese economy. We use about $900 billion of processed minerals in the United States a year, and we generate about $3.3 to $3.4 trillion of GDP on that, so it’s still a huge part of our economy.
But we’re also importing a lot of those processed minerals from China. And we’re also buying a lot of products that are manufactured in China, which is essentially exporting our wealth to the Chinese government.
We can look at natural resources as a way to leverage our U.S. economy against the Chinese economy.
We can talk about Russia in that as well, with oil and gas.
SN: Just to go back for a second. You talked about the mining needed for “the electrification that’s being proposed.” Like, more electric vehicles? Or what did you mean by that?
BW: All of the above. You can’t have electric vehicles without having a place to plug them in. And you can’t have a place to plug them in without increasing the size of the grid. You’ve got to be able to generate more electricity.
If you’re going to generate it with wind and solar, you’re going to have to have a tremendous amount of things manufactured from elements and minerals to generate that electricity, or we’re going to be generating it the way we’re generating 69% of it right now and that’s with fossil fuels.
So it’s a very complicated network of interactions there and all of it is dependent upon energy and minerals.
I think the problem with the Democrats’ and the Biden administration’s approach is that — what I’ve been saying is they have two problems. I think they have not defined the problem correctly. Hence, they’re trying to go about solving the problem in the wrong way.
I think electric cars are fascinating, but electric cars in the United States are going to do very, very little, if anything, to decrease global carbon emissions. And if all the eggs are in that basket in the U.S., there’s going to have to be a tremendous amount of mining for lithium and copper and cobalt, nickel, a lot of ingredients that go into an electric car.
And then at the end of the day, it could have an impact of less than 1% global greenhouse gas reductions, if you were able to convert every passenger car and light-duty truck in America to an electric vehicle overnight.
That’s less than 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are emitted from the United States. Twenty-seven percent of that comes from all of transportation, then 57% of that comes from light-duty trucks and passenger vehicles. So now you’re down to a little over 2%. And then you look at the fact that only 31% of our electricity comes from a non-carbon-emitting source.
So you’re below 1% global impact on carbon emissions and I don’t think we’re going to get the bang for our buck putting all our eggs in the basket of electric vehicles.
Plus, if you want carbon-free energy, wind and solar, they’re two sources, but they’re just a blip on the chart. It’s going to have to be something like nuclear power or someday maybe fusion power to generate enough electricity to offset the electricity that’s being produced by coal, oil and natural gas and biomass right now.
SN: So if Democrats are not defining the question correctly, how would you define it?
BW: That’s a great question, I’m glad you asked.
I think Democrats have defined the problem in the context of: The climate is changing. It’s changing because of carbon in the atmosphere. We must stop all carbon from going into the atmosphere.
The part they’re leaving out of that is that the quality of life in the world is increasing because of innovation in energy. There’s a developing world out there that wants to have the same kinds of energy and the benefits that come from having energy. And the world has an insatiable appetite for more energy.
The Democrats’ approach is to remove fossil fuels, which maybe someday we can do that, but we’re a long way from getting to that point.
And if you look globally, developing countries are building energy-generating systems which utilize fossil fuels much faster than we’re building windmills or solar farms, which have much less energy density.
So, we’ve got to work on a couple of different fronts, innovation being one of them. What the world wants is reliable and affordable energy, and we’ve got to be the innovators that figure out how to make that clean.
The technology we’ve got right now, you go down the logic diagram, and you end up with nuclear power, because, quite frankly, you can’t build enough windmills and solar farms to offset the amount of energy that’s produced from fossil fuels right now.
But people have a problem with nuclear power. The largest component of green power that we have right now is hydropower. And you have people wanting to tear dams down. So that’s going the opposite direction.
SN: Should we be working to reduce carbon emissions? Or is that sort of secondary to having plentiful energy supplies?
BW: We’ve got to work to reduce carbon emissions, but you’ve got to do it in the context of reality that there’s a world that has an insatiable appetite for energy.
And when China builds a new coal-fired plant every week, which they’ve been doing for the past several years, it absorbs any carbon reduction benefits that we’ve created here in the U.S.
There’s too much focus on electric cars, and it’s like a red herring that you do this, and it’s going to fix the problem and it’s not. Show me the math that says it’s going to fix the problem. It’s much larger scale than that. And if we cut our fossil fuel usage, the rest of the world’s not going to.
SN: But does that mean it’s not worth doing? It seems like if it’s a worldwide effort, that the United States could be a leader in that effort worldwide.
BW: We’re already a leader.
We’re relying on technology that has to be subsidized. India doesn’t have money to subsidize wind farms and solar panels. African nations can’t do that.
And you just look at the order of magnitude of how much energy you can produce from a windmill and a solar farm, and, again, we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.
The other side of that is we got to work on ways to get carbon out of the atmosphere that’s already there. That’s why I’m a big proponent of natural solutions and why I think forestry and innovative products like biochar can play a huge role in removing carbon from the atmosphere.
You got to look at both sides of the equation. How much are you putting up, and how much are you taking out?
SN: It sounds like you’re saying it’s less worthwhile to try and artificially limit fossil fuel supply and usage and more about working on research and development to make energy cleaner and on a larger scale. Is that fair?
BW: We’ve got to work on it every day, making every form of energy we’ve got cleaner and safer and healthier.
Now, the problem is there has to be a transition time. There may be a day when we can have carbon-free energy, but the reality is it’s nowhere close. Not even remotely close. And we can’t solve that in the United States by building electric cars.
SN: But do you think Congress should be working toward that transition and that should be an objective?
BW: I think it should, but it has to be in the realm of reality. It has to be with eyes wide open, knowing that somebody in a developing country that doesn’t have the quality of life that they see the rest of the world having, they don’t really care about how much carbon is in the atmosphere.
I mean, look no further than China and the number of coal-fired plants they’re building so they can generate electricity to create jobs, to manufacture stuff to ship to the rest of the world.
So, I just want people to take a realistic approach to it and not just push stuff that I would call eyewash. It’s not a valid solution. My background is in engineering, my undergraduate degree’s in engineering. And they teach you problem-solving process and the first thing you have to do to solve a problem is to define the problem correctly.
And I think that our current policy in the country has greatly missed what the definition of a problem is and therefore we’re working towards solutions that aren’t going to solve any kind of a problem anytime soon.
And it’s more than reality. It’s, it’s not realizing that people desire to have energy, they desire to have a better way of life. And they can’t afford it.
SN: When you talk about like the developing world and China and India, are you saying that because their carbon emissions we have no control over and they’re likely to grow, maybe grow very fast, that then we shouldn’t make a tradeoff to limit our own emissions in the United States? Is that sort of what you’re getting at?
BW: No. We can’t wreck our economy for something that’s not going to be a valid solution.
The hope is that America would be the innovators, that we would continually work to make the energy sources we have cleaner and that eventually we’ll develop the technology that the rest of the world adopts that is reliable and affordable and that happens to be clean as well.
But the path that we’re on is one that would do great harm to our economy and do harm to our ability to actually solve these problems in the future. I wish we were in person; I’ve got a chart I can show you the global demand for energy global consumption by source. And you just about need a magnifying glass to see where wind, solar, and other renewables fit on the chart.
And it’s growing at an exponential rate. The world consumption of energy doubled from 1800 to 1900. It doubled again in 1942 and doubled again in the mid-60s, doubled again in the ‘80s and doubled again in 2021. And by 2035 we’re projected to be 50% higher on global consumption of energy than we are now.
And by far the largest source of energy is coal, oil and natural gas.
SN: Obviously, it’s a divided government. Republicans have a slim majority in the House. Are there things that you think you can work with Democrats on?
BW: The (Strategic Petroleum Reserve) bill on not selling oil to China has huge bipartisan support.
The president went into it calling it a partisan issue. But I think we see it had huge bipartisan support.
Specifically with the Natural Resources Committee, I think there are a lot of things we can work on. When it comes to forestry and natural climate solutions, that can be bipartisan. I think if we get the facts out there, the impact of using U.S. energy versus foreign energy, we could get bipartisan support to do that.
There was a lot of money put out in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which I think was misnamed, and there was a lot of money put out in the Inflation Reduction Act, which again I think was misnamed. So there’s a lot of money out there to build quote green infrastructure.
But people are finding out the green infrastructure people are having the same problems the other kind of infrastructure folks are having and it’s that they can’t get a permit. You can’t build anything because you can’t get a permit. And our laws have been weaponized.
So I think there could be bipartisan support to go in and fix some of these regulations with common sense so that you can build solar farms and transmission lines and you can build pipelines and you can manage a forest and do things that are part of the big equation on how you address climate.
SN: Sen. Joe Manchin III (a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee) had a proposal on that last year. Is that something you’d be interested in revisiting? Or would you all take a different approach to permitting reform?
BW: He and I are supposed to get together here pretty soon and I’m sure we’ll talk about permitting.
We’ve got ideas here in the House. Garret Graves of Louisiana has something called the BUILDER Act that we think has some common-sense reforms in it.
I just saw a story somebody forwarded to me earlier about the number of whales that we think are being harmed by offshore wind energy, so there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to consider and we’ve got to get the facts and the data and really make a full-faith effort to do what’s right. For the country and for the environment and for the future.
SN: You were a forester before you got into politics and I’ve heard you talk about forest management, and wildfires is of course a huge issue. How do you think the federal approach to forest management could be improved?
BW: Well actually, I’m still a forester. I renewed my license at the end of the year. I’m still a licensed engineer and a licensed forester.
But this is an area that I really hope to see some progress on. A bill that I’m very excited about is one that we call the Save Our Sequoias Act. Worked very closely with Scott Peters, (Democrat) from California on this bill.
Actually, Speaker (Kevin) McCarthy and Scott Peters were the cosponsors of the bill in the last Congress. Most of the sequoia groves are in McCarthy’s (California) district. And we went out to look at what’s happening in our sequoia groves and how we had lost 20% of these iconic trees in like two or three years. And when you get out and see what the issues are and academics and Forest Service and Park Service employees pointing out that here’s the problem: These trees have grown up without fire for over 100 years in an environment where they used to get fire every three years or so. It creates ladder fuel (vegetation that allows a fire to move from a forest floor to tree canopies).
And the result of that is we got a good bill last Congress that had 25 Democrats, 25 Republicans and was endorsed by Save the Redwoods League, the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. So, I think it requires doing the hard work and really looking at the facts. I’m excited to get that bill filed again. Hopefully we’ll get through committee. We couldn’t even get a hearing on it in the last Congress.
SN: And how is your approach different from how things have been done?
BW: On this particular bill, it would declare a congressional emergency for the sequoia groves. And they’re unique and they’re very well-defined. There’s like 70 of them and sequoias don’t grow off of those sites.
So we are declaring a congressional emergency for all the sequoia groves and we’re giving the Park Service and Forest Service — there’s a little bit of tribal ownership of sequoias and a little bit of state of California ownership of sequoias — but we’re giving them the tools and the resources to go in and restore the forest to how it was like in the early 1800s so that they can reintroduce fire to it without destroying the whole forest. And it’s following very rigorous science on forest management.
SN: When you restore the forest to its state in the 1800s, is that through thinning?
BW: It requires mechanical thinning. So, what happened after the gold rush in California, Native Americans quit using controlled burns and then the Forest Service came along early 1900s, 1901 or whatever, and they started putting out every fire.
So, you have what’s called shade-tolerant species, like white fir and different kinds of pine, that grow very slowly in the understory of these giant sequoias. And what would happen, for centuries, they averaged about 31 fires per century in the sequoia groves. Then it went to three fires per century.
So, these slow-growing trees were over 100 years old, they’re pretty good-sized trees, and they got tall enough that the tops of them are in the lower crown of the sequoia.
Then you get wildfire that comes through that then runs up the tree because they’ve got ladder fuel and it gets into the crowns of the sequoias. And we saw a whole grove of sequoia trees that were totally destroyed by forest fire.
I mean, these things can live to be 3,000 years old … Trees are like a history book. Because of their annual rains and fire scars, you can do amazing research on what happened over time.
The simple solution is, you go in and cut down these white fir trees and pine tree that are growing up into the crown of the sequoias. And then you’ve got it where you can use controlled burns, and the fire goes through low to the ground and cleans up the fuels. And that’s the way the forest had been managed for millennia.
SN: OK, we better wrap it up here. Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
BW: We did talk about biochars in passing, so if you want to research that we can have a very in-depth conversation.
SN: Biochar? C-H-A-R?
BW: Yeah, biochar. The Incans were making it over a thousand years ago. And you can still dig it up. And when we talk about carbon sequestration, this gives us a way to remove overstocked vegetation from the forest, make a product out of it that’s almost pure carbon. Put it in the soil, make the soil more productive and make renewable fuel out of it in the process.
So that’s the kind of innovation I’m talking about when we talk about the big picture of climate.
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