By Chris Casteel
A hearing organized by Rep. James Lankford on Thursday to examine the rising costs of energy became a forum for partisan debate on climate change and federal regulations.
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, kicked off his first hearing at the helm of the subcommittee on energy policy, health care and entitlements by blaming the Obama administration for regulatory overreach that limited energy supplies, while the top Democrat on the panel countered that oil and gas production was rising under the president's leadership.
Members of Congress have been holding a series of hearings in the last few weeks on fundamental questions about energy supplies and prices at a time when experts are predicting the current boom in oil and gas production could last for decades.
In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the natural gas boom had lowered "nearly everyone's energy bill."
Paula M. Carmody, who represents consumers before Maryland's utility companies, told Lankford's subcommittee that customers in the Baltimore area had seen a $300 drop in annual electricity bills between 2009 and 2012.
But Eugene M. Trisko, a consultant for the coal industry, cited statistics over a longer term, saying electricity prices have increased 40 percent between 2001 and 2013.
"These increases are due in part to additional costs associated with meeting U.S. EPA clean air and environmental standards," Trisko said.
Moreover, he said, family incomes were not keeping up with rising energy prices, particularly those of gasoline.
George Hand, general manager of the Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative near Seminole, said new regulations had offset some of last year's reduction in electricity rates stemming from lower natural gas prices.
Some of the cooperative's customers, many of whom are farmers or retired farmers, call the utility to find out how much their next electric bill will be so they'll know how much they can spend on food, Hand said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the benefits of environmental policies "have far exceeded the costs of regulatory compliance." Weather extremes resulting from climate change, she said, also burdened the economy and American families.
Some of the witnesses at the hearing said a federal program meant to help low-income people pay their heating and cooling bills had low participation; only 16 percent of those eligible accepted the aid, Trisko said.
At the same time, they said, funding had been cut from about $5 billion annually to $3.4 billion.