Gov. Hutchinson heads national energy summit, says U.S. needs to prioritize infrastructure investments, protect energy grid

by Wesley Brown ( 273 views 

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) visits Thursday (Feb. 23) with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the Governor's Joint Energy Summit in Washington, D.C.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened a national energy summit at the nation’s capital on Thursday (Feb. 23) by saying the U.S. needs to do more to protect the nation’s energy grid and prioritize investments on energy security and infrastructure.

“Energy is a critical part of our state and national economy. In order to sustain our nation’s energy security and remain competitive abroad, it is paramount that our energy sector continues its development and utilization of diverse energy resources,” Hutchinson said.

As chairman of the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), Hutchinson is chairing the first of the two-day energy summit that is hosting energy leaders from across the country and world to discuss energy security and infrastructure planning and developing. In his brief speech to kick-off the conference, Hutchinson outlined a list of critical issues he believes the U.S. needs to address as the nation’s energy infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate.

“We have new transmission growth, more super-transformers that have failed, oil and natural gas pipelines (that) have ruptured, and crude oil train wrecks – all challenges in terms of our infrastructure that we have to be a voice in saying we have to continue to invest in energy infrastructure,” the governor said.

Hutchinson, former deputy director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, also said protecting the U.S. energy grid from a growing number of external, political and cyber threats is key to moving the U.S. closer to being fully energy-independent in the future.

“The threats to U.S. energy security comes from political instability of energy-producing countries, and that’s why we want to shift away from that reliance upon their energy that comes with the manipulation of energy supplies and a market system that can be derailed and misused,” he said. “It comes from competition of emerging economies, it comes from a tax on power plants and supply infrastructure, including cyberattacks that impact us in nearly every arena.”

Hutchinson also said federal and state energy leaders and policymakers have an opportunity to make big strides under President Donald Trump, citing recent executive orders that include the restart of the controversial Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline projects, and the president’s promise to bolster U.S. energy investments.

“We have an opportunity in the new presidential administration to have an impact on key decisions that are made in the beginning and in the next four years of the Trump administration,” Hutchinson said.

The Arkansas governor drew applause and laughter from the audience of governors and energy policymakers when he said Trump most certainly will change the regulatory environment in the industry during his first few years in office.

“President Trump has assured us he will make many changes in laws and regulations that have impacted the energy industry. Does anyone doubt his sincerity to changing the regulatory environment in Washington, D.C.?” Hutchinson said as the crowd roared in laughter.

Hutchinson also told attendees that the Trump administration will continue to rescind many federal energy mandates instituted by former President Barack Obama. He cited the recent repeal of the Department of Interior’s stream protection rules and predicted that Trump will revisit the Environment Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of President Obama’s climate change rules.

Hutchinson closed by saying state regulators and policymakers will play a major role in rewriting new rules for the energy industry and reshape national energy policy.

“Our voice will be clear and it will be strong. I want to be certain that we continue to implement best practices and recommend those as an industry,” he said.

In a phone call with Talk Business & Politics about the energy summit, Hutchinson said he would lead the discussion on energy infrastructure and modernization, cybersecurity for energy systems, and successful workforce development practices.

In response to questions concerning Arkansas’ future energy needs and infrastructure, Hutchinson did not directly mention the two controversial energy infrastructure projects that will transverse across the state from Oklahoma to western Tennessee, but offered that he prefers to see a mix of renewables and fossil fuels.

The $930 million Diamond Pipeline project that Texas energy giants Plains All American and Valero plan to construct and operate will deliver premium crude oil across several major water sources along a snaking route between the Arkansas River Valley and Ozark Mountains. That project, which received approval from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the state Public Service Commission, is underway despite some opposition from landowners protesting right-of-way access.

The $2 billion Plains and Plains and Eastern Clean Line is proposed 720-mile transmission line along a similar east-to-west route across Arkansas that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Energy, although a federal lawsuit over landowner rights issues in Jonesboro could halt or slow the project’s expected construction start later this year.

“A continued emphasis on a diversity of energy sources is part of what’s made Arkansas successful in terms of affordable energy rates and it helps to attract industry to our state when we are so competitive,” Hutchinson said.

The governor also said he will also highlight Arkansas’ nuclear and natural gas industries during discussions at the energy summit.

“There is a debate across the country as to the future of nuclear, but I am committed to maintain that as a part of our energy mix,” he said.

The state’s natural gas industry that has come to a standstill as market prices have halted all drilling in the Fayetteville Shale play. Hutchinson said getting production restarted in Arkansas will be important to the state’s energy future.

On the growth of renewable energy in Arkansas, Hutchinson said he was surprised to read a report a few weeks ago that Little Rock-based Southwest Power Pool was the first regional grid operator in North America to fulfill more than 50% of generation capacity with wind energy.

“That surprised me, but it reflects that we have not just the traditional fossil fuels, but we have the new alternative energy sources such as wind that continues to be part of the mix in Arkansas and I think that is important.”

Hutchinson said he will also look for good ideas from the summit that he can implement in Arkansas. In October, at the annual IOGCC convention in Little Rock, Hutchinson was named chairman of the multi-state government agency comprised of the governors of oil and gas producing states and other appointed regulators and representatives of state and federal agencies.

Hutchinson was also elected in September as chair of the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) for the second straight year. That group is an interstate compact, composed of governors and state legislators from 16 southern states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as a presidential appointee. Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, also sits on the group’s 12-member executive committee.

Following the energy summit, Hutchinson said he will attend the winter meeting of the National Governors Association’s that will run from Feb. 24-27. The popular Arkansas governor said he plans to visit with several other governors and the newly appointed U.S. Department of Health and Human Secretary Tom Price to discuss healthcare initiatives. He also is scheduled co-chair the NGA’s national security policy group at the three-day meeting.