MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - America needs a plan for its energy future - one that includes fossil fuels and renewable sources, creates a stable regulatory environment and puts people to work, a panel of industry insiders and federal legislators said.
Because policies can change every four years with the president's administration, the country needs a long-term roadmap to follow, said Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va.
"I need to see a plan," said McKinley, one of two professional engineers in Congress and an advocate of U.S. energy independence. "You can't build anything in America without a plan."
He and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., presided over "A Forum Look at America's Energy Roadmap to 2050" on Monday at West Virginia University's National Research Center for Coal and Energy. Joining them were WVU President James Clements, utilities and energy producers and environmentalists. Clements told those present his goal is to see WVU become "America's energy university."
"What we learned here today is that there is a very broad consensus - a concern - that the federal government is pulling back from fossil fuels," McKinley said, noting the government is pushing stricter environmental regulation and directing fewer dollars to fossil fuels research.
Manchin said Monday's energy summit showed there "is not a one-size fits all" approach to tackling America's energy issues. He added the government is picking winners and losers when investing in the development of new energy resources - and he said those investments often fail to pay off.
There's no point in debating whether fossil fuels will continue to be used, said Brett Harvey, chief executive officer of Consol Energy. Demand for energy is expected to grow 55 percent in the next two decades. Secondary energy sources such as wind, solar and water all require mechanical means to capture and are inherently "less efficient on the front end."
Harvey pointed out his company has been in operation for 150 years.
"We didn't get here by accident," he said. "We got here because we were smart."
Harvey said he recently met with officials from China and India.
"They are determining how to use their coal, while we are debating whether to use it," he said.
Manchin said he's optimistic about the possibility of developing an "all-in policy," meaning one that includes a role for every source of energy, "not one overbalancing or overshadowing the other."
But Tony Alexander, chief executive officer of Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., argued that's the wrong approach. Trying to include everything, he said, will result in a plan with no direction.
Alexander contends any national policy should focus on domestically produced coal, natural gas and electricity. Oil, which is primarily used for transportation and largely produced overseas, has no place in that plan, he said. Nor do subsidies that give one industry an advantage over another.
"The federal government ... should not pick winners and losers in the energy marketplace," Alexander said. "Subsidies and mandates create inefficiencies, lead to higher prices, assume customers can't make decisions on their own and, more importantly, are a tax on the economy and the people."
Paul Koonce, chief executive officer of Dominion Virginia Power, said regulatory stability is also a critical component. He called the cost of environmental compliance for a typical U.S. power plant "astronomical," and said utilities need stability to function.
Environmentalists at the forum also acknowledged that fossil fuels will remain part of the picture for the foreseeable future. But Kit Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council said renewables and energy efficiency programs can create jobs, too.
"Building up reliance on wind and solar is not incompatible," she argued, pointing to other countries that have offshore wind farms while the U.S. has none.
"We can do better," she said. However, "it doesn't mean saying goodbye to fossil fuels. That's not how it's going to work."
James Laurita, CEO of MEPCO in Morgantown, operates coal mines but is also getting involved with alternative energies. He said the key to any energy source being successful is affordability.
"I've helped develop 23 windmills, and I've seen almost zero revenue," he said. "I can't see us getting away from fossil fuels. I got my fingers in all of them (energy sources), and I see the pros and cons of each of them. We can't get away from coal. We have to make it better."
Scott Rotruck, vice president of operations for Chesapeake Energy noted that past energy problems typically centered around a scarcity of available resources. But today he said there is an abundance of energy resources available, and that presents an opportunity for the country.
Rotruck encouraged universities such as WVU to forge a path toward a national energy plan, and he termed Monday's discussion a productive one among people with differing opinions.
The panel, which featured nearly two dozen speakers, also debated whether the sequestration of carbon-based emissions has a role in a national energy plan when it's technologically feasible but not economically viable.
WVU geology professor Tim Carr said storing carbon emissions underground is possible for large, stationary sources such as power plants, but it raises the cost of producing electricity by about 75 percent. No one should expect widespread deployment without investment and support by the federal government, he said.
American Electric Power's Mark McCollough said retrofitting existing power plants would be expensive and would require the diversion of nearly a third of the plant's energy output. Utilities in some countries are reducing their emissions by using pure oxygen in the combustion process, he said, but that's not necessarily cheaper.
"The road map exists" for successful carbon capture, McCollough said. "The funding support for that road map does not."
Gene Trisko, an attorney for United Mine Workers of America, said that could change if Congress passed legislation allowing a small extra fee on customers' electric bills. For about $12 per year per household, he said, revenues of more than $1 billion a year could be generated for large-scale demonstration projects.
Trisko said federal regulations requiring carbon sequestration at new coal-fired power plants may ultimately be overturned in court, "but until that time comes, coal is facing an insurmountable hurdle."
Between that regulation and new mercury emission standards, "we're not in a position to even consider the inclusion of coal within a future national energy policy," Trisko said.
"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a situation that must change."