Senator Mark Begich: America Is Falling Behind in Energy


Every time there is a crisis in the Middle East and gasoline prices go up, we start hearing from the halls of Congress the need for a "comprehensive energy policy." It's almost a running joke.

Everyone admits we need such a policy but no one can agree on anything and nothing happens. Instead we get piecemeal legislation.

On the morning of the President delivering his energy speech calling for boosting oil and natural gas production and cutting oil imports, the Democratic leadership invited selected press for a business media roundtable. The Senators spoke a bit on tax reform and job creation.

I decided to ask Democratic Senators Mark Begich (AK), Mark Warner (VA), Amy Klobucher (MN) Ron Wyden (OR), and Jeanne Shaheen (NH) on the amount of jobs an energy policy could create. I pointed out in one of my interviews with Harold Hamm CEO of Continental Resources (CLR) that he told me he has 10,000 job openings.

When I said that number the room fell silent. I then added, "That's a lot of jobs."

Senator Warner broke that silence and agreed, "It pains me to say this as an IT and telecom guy, but I believe innovation in the energy space will be the leading job and wealth creator in the world over the next 25 years, and America is not even in the game."

Some time spent gum-flapping about missed opportunities in passing reform. Senator Klobuchar says we had moments after 9/11, 2008 and after President Obama was sworn into office but instead of having a comprehensive policy passed only single items were passed.

"The time is now." Klobuchar stressed.

Leading this intimate round table discussion was Senator Mark Begich of Alaska. Elected into Congress in 2008, he is one of fresh faces on the hill and is trying to bring the issue of energy security into the mainstream.

I caught up with the Senator for a more in-depth interview after the hour long discussion talking about his mission on energy education and how Alaska should be the energy role model in terms of safe energy exploration.

LL: Sen. Klobuchar spoke about the moments that have been missed in passing a comprehensive energy plan. Do you think given the Middle East crisis now, maybe Congress can get together on this and finally pass something?

Sen. Begich: This is a great moment in a lot of ways. There is a lot of new guys in the Senate here that are much more moderate and we say, look we see things longer term and we need to push this envelope. It does mean sitting down and talking about this.

If its the gang of 20 or last year when it was headed more from the committee chairman, like Kerry, Boxer, Lieberman, as well as myself, Carper and Udall, we need to do a broad sweep. I remembered I weaseled myself in with a meeting with the President and I said if you are talking about energy, I'm coming.

So when we had that discussion I said we keep on doing these nickel and dime issues and if you look around the world, we are being outpaced by every country. Why? Because we sit around and say let's do five billion in R and D for the whole year and I say well, China does ten billion a month! So, if we are going to compete, we need to be competitive. If we are going to have a domestic supply of oil and nat gas we have to be serious about it.

We have a pipeline in our state which is now going in the wrong direction and reaching critical capacity. Meaning, when it gets to a certain capacity they will not be able to operate it economically. It doesn't matter if we are producing 300 thousand barrels a day. They will not be able to do it.

I think that is lost in this greater discussion. Recently, I'm listening to Oklahoma complaining that their price is 15 dollars below the overall because of the way Canadian oil is coming in. And they produce 170 something barrels a day. We produce that every six hours!

LL: Is that getting lost in the energy message?

Sen. Begich: It's really frustrating. It's all about Oklahoma and Texas. Well, do you want the big find? You want to have more stability in our energy? Then Alaska is the target. We have more stronger environmental standards than the Gulf does. Our permits are regulated by EPA. Not the Interior Department. So our standards are way up here and theirs are much lower. And because of that we have a higher threshold. It also gives us an economic disadvantage to be frank with you, we also get sued for just thinking about oil. So we go through it all.

LL: Why doesn't then the federal government then follow Alaska's energy development standards considering all the fears of drilling in the Gulf?

Sen. Begich: That's a good question. But there is a lot of short term politicking going on about Alaska and how we need to protect it. I was born and raised there. I'm telling you if there is anyone who is going to protect Alaska from environmental damage, you are looking at him. We spend a lot of time on the hill explaining this.

Keep in mind we have 100 new House members since November, 50 new Senators since 2005 and they have no clue about what Alaska is doing. You mentioned fracking in the roundtable, we have been doing it. Have you heard any controversy? No. Seeing any environmental problems? No.

We're not doing five thousand barrels. We are doing 50,000 barrels. So, from my perspective I am trying to get people re-thinking. I had a conversation with the President about 10 days ago on the budget and then we talked about energy. I said we need to get on the show here. Alaska is a critical piece of this.

LL: We talked about energy sector job creation in our discussion. It really is a ripple effect spanning into other industries.

Sen. Begich: It's an amazing ripple. Harold Hamm of Continental Resources has been leading the fracking independents which is a fantastic move on his part because I think he is going to set the tone on this issue.

From Alaska's perspective just a gas line alone is thousands of constructions jobs right away. And then there are the long-term jobs depending on how you utilize the product- if its LNG, or if its directly into the market in the lower 48. Then you have the secondary impact- if you have nat gas supply does that mean you are going to convert trucks? Cars are not the high value, the trucks, the semi's are and then if you do convert trucks, you see a surge in the conversion business, the trucking business.

LL: "Energy security" is the buzz word of the day here on the hill. You have been trying to turn this topic from a buzz word into an actionable agenda item. How is it going?

Sen. Begich: The issue of energy security has never been addressed in the Armed Services cmte. It's never been a topic discussed in a hearing. It should be discussed and here's why- whose the largest producer of renewable energy? The military. Whose the largest consumer of energy? The military.

So I've asked about this to Senator Levin and he has agreed that we need to have a hearing on energy security. We just need to find out the right time. But its interesting, in every one of those Armed Services hearings the topic of energy always pops up.

If we had a hearing on energy security in that committee it would get everyone to start rethinking about this issue. I think from a national security perspective its imperative. That’s what this is all about.


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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."