Congress Holds Hearings on Effects of Pandemic on the Energy Industry

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Congress held two hearings this week to examine the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the energy industry. Both the House Committee on Energy & Commerce and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard from former agency officials and industry experts about challenges and opportunities that face the energy industry during and the after the pandemic.

As of mid-May, the entire U.S. energy sector lost a total of 1.3 million jobs – a 13% decline in energy sector employment since the start of March. The energy efficiency sector saw 70% of all clean energy job losses. This drop in energy employment follows a recent U.S. Energy & Employment report that found the traditional energy and energy efficiency sectors of the energy industry added nearly 120,300 jobs in 2019, representing over 7 percent of all new jobs nationwide.

Gregory Wetstone, President and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), testified to the House Committee on Energy & Commerce about the “sobering toll” that COVID-19 has had on the clean energy sector. Both he and Lisa Jacobson, President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy – who testified to the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources – referenced a recent report showing that the clean energy sector has lost more than 620,000 jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, or 18.5% of the industry’s workforce; this loss represents more than double the number of clean energy jobs created since 2017. California, Florida, Texas, and Michigan have seen the most clean energy job losses in the nation. This comes on the heels of a May 2019 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showing that renewable energy consumption in the nation last year surpassed coal for the first time in over 130 years. 2019 was the sixth straight year of coal consumption decline, bringing it to the lowest level since 1964. Mr. Wetstone and Ms. Jacobson urged Congress to provide immediate relief to the clean energy sector by allowing for temporary refundability for renewable tax credits and for the delay of the phase-down of existing renewable tax incentives.

Earlier this week, 180 Members of Congress sent a letter to House leadership requesting economic relief for the clean energy industry. Echoing the testimony of several witnesses, the letter calls for allowing renewable energy tax credits to be received as a direct payment and to delay the phase-down of existing renewable tax incentives. Separately, 50 bipartisan California state lawmakers – almost half the legislature – sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for clean energy legislation, including tax incentives.

Meanwhile, North Dakota’s oil production decreased 15% in April, and oil and gas jobs in the state have resulted in 9,200 layoffs – a 40% decline. Nationwide, the oil and gas sector is estimated to see nearly 100,000 job losses over the next six months. Mr. Frank Macchiarola, Senior Vice President of Policy, Economics and Regulatory Affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, testified to the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources that not only are they are not seeking industry-specific financial assistance to offset the disruption caused by the pandemic, but they strongly oppose targeted relief measures in energy markets.

In his Senate testimony, EIA Deputy Administrator Stephen Nalley stated that gasoline consumption could drop by as much as 13% this year because of reduced travel demands, coal production will fall by 25% this year, and the agency expects this summer’s electricity demand to be the lowest since 2009.

Former U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz testified in the House that there will likely be permanent changes in the energy sector and on carbon emissions post-pandemic. He questioned whether increased telework in the future will impact airplane, public transit, and automobile usage and noted that the likelihood of more telework will lead to moves out of the city and into more rural spaces; this will result in an increased demand for broadband and more reliable electricity services. He urged Congress to prioritize investing in energy infrastructure such as grid modernization, a system of community solar projects, and national EV fast-charging infrastructure as ways to help the nation recover from the pandemic.

Recovery efforts for the energy sector are expected to be addressed in the next COVID-19 economic stimulus package, which has yet to be released; President Trump has stated he would sign another package before the August congressional recess. ASCE is continuing discussions with Congress to ensure any additional stimulus legislation addresses the need for infrastructure investment and ensures the health and safety of all Americans.

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