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Can Biden's climate bill actually help Oklahoma's energy strategy? Here's why it might

Dale Denwalt, Oklahoman  


    Winnie Stachelberg has traveled the country, examining oil wells abandoned decades ago by producers who either refused to, or could not, clean up their mess.

    Stachelberg, who serves as infrastructure coordinator for the U.S. Department of the Interior, distinctly remembers one site in Oklahoma highlighting the problem faced by modern landowners, conservationists and anyone who enjoys the outdoors.

    "I think one of the most powerful images was at Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge, where there was a huge abandoned oil well that was leeching oil into the land around it, which then fed into the streams," she said. "And so anyone who was fishing is going to run into the toxicity in the water."

    Feral hogs roll around in the oily mud and use it as a mosquito repellent, she said. But as the pigs roam the nature preserve south of Tulsa, they essentially transport the oil to other parts of the wildlife refuge.

    "It was just a perfect example of how these abandoned oil wells, that were on land that is open to recreation and should be available for people to enjoy, are littered with the remains from industry that just walked away from their commitment," Stachelberg said.

    The Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden last month is a complex set of wide-ranging policies that includes $81 million for Oklahoma to clean up 1,196 orphaned wells. The money will help support the state's ongoing effort to clean up more than 17,000 well sites that have been abandoned.

    Plugging and remediating orphaned wells is just one of several components of the IRA legislation. Along with environmental cleanup and pollution reduction, the Biden administration hopes to boost American manufacturing with tax credits and grants narrowly tailored to benefit clean energy and high-tech industries.

    The bill also includes money to make homes and businesses more energy efficient, and it promises discounts for people who purchase a new or used electric vehicle. Oklahoma has joined every other state in submitting a plan to expand the nation's EV charging network along highways.

    A focus on cheaper, cleaner energy

    The rising cost of natural gas at home and around the world highlights the need for legislation that prioritizes renewable energy development, said Travis Roach, an economist and professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.

    "It couldn't have been better timing to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which has a lot of different incentives built in for large scale producers to incentivize more wind and solar development," Roach said. "But also for homeowners, there are a lot of new incentives to do energy audits to make sure that your home is is as energy efficient as possible."

    Much of the electricity used in Oklahoma is generated at power plants that use natural gas for fuel. As Russian aggression in Ukraine spills into European energy markets, experts here believe utility bills will get more expensive because demand for natural gas is so high around the world.

    Administration officials hope the climate bill will incentivize new development in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy. It also includes tax credits for production and storage of hydrogen, which aligns with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's plans to create a "hydrogen hub," along with Arkansas and Louisiana.

    "It's really a domestic manufacturing bill where you can also have a lot of components manufacturing," Roach said. "Battery infrastructure is incentivized through this bill. Clean energy, EV components are incentivized through this bill. And these are these are organizations that the Stitt administration has tried to attract to the state."

    Stitt's office did not respond to questions that were directed toward recently appointed Energy Secretary Ken McQueen.

    However, in an interview with the Financial Times, Stitt himself criticized tax credits for industries that his administration has worked so hard to attract.

    "Do those federal tax credits tip the scale? Absolutely. There's going to be all kinds of industries that pop up to chase those tax credits and those dollars," Stitt told the British newspaper. "But if you ask me do I think we need those tax credits, no I don't."

    Roach compared investments made in Biden's climate bill to investments in shale production during the 1980s that eventually led to fracking being such a dominant and efficient part of the oil and gas industry.

    "This is the kind of investment that's needed to bring on that new technology and bring down costs," he said.

    The impact on Oklahoma

    It's unclear whether anyone with stacks of federal cash and a dream will pick Oklahoma for their manufacturing site or renewable energy production. If they do, it's likely they would be welcomed with open arms.

    State officials, including Stitt, have prioritized manufacturing, making bold attempts to lure high-tech industry with a focus on various stages of electric vehicle production. The governor has repeatedly boasted about an all-of-the-above approach to energy, which includes the same kind of renewables that the climate bill hopes to incentivize.

    Oil and gas producers got something in the bill, too. A provision reopens offshore and federal land leasing, and the bill also streamlines the process to approve strategically important pipelines. An organization representing local oil and gas producers, however, criticized the legislation's change to tax policy.

    The bill creates an alternative minimum tax on some corporations with an average annual profit of over $1 billion, essentially ensuring those companies pay at least a 15% tax even if they qualify for credits and deductions. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates it would affect about 150 companies in several industries.

    Brook A. Simmons, president of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, said recently that large producers would be affected.

    "The result? Fewer dollars to drill wells, pay for well services and hire workers. Less oil and natural gas production means higher energy prices and continued supply-demand imbalance," Simmons said.

    Some of the largest producers, however, are seeing massive profits while prioritizing shareholder returns over production growth. The three most recognizable oil and gas companies in OklahomaChesapeake Energy, Continental Resources and Devon Energy — each reported over $1 billion profit during the most recent financial quarter. Rising fuel prices have led to calls for domestic companies to increase production, but many producers are sticking to their existing growth plans.

    The Petroleum Alliance also warned the new tax policy would negatively impact Oklahoma's state revenue, of which $1.5 billion last fiscal year came from the production of oil and natural gas. That criticism, however, doesn't account for any revenue gained from the construction of new factories or renewable energy and hydrogen production.

    It's not clear whether existing Oklahoma companies will take advantage of the incentives laid out in the bill, or what impact the legislation would have on their existing operations. A spokesman for utility provider Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. said the company is evaluating the bill for opportunities to support its customers and communities.

    Chesapeake Energy, whose CEO recently discussed the lack of adequate natural gas transmission in the northeast United States, declined to comment about the legislation.

    Jeff Clark, president and CEO of Advanced Power Alliance, said he hopes the legislation will foster collaboration across energy industries.

    Clark, whose organization promotes the development of wind, solar and clean energy storage, views the new law positively and said it meshes well with Oklahoma's "all-of-the-above" energy production strategy.

    "It will lead to more oil and gas investment and will lead to more carbon capture investment, and will lead to more hydrogen investment, and it will lead to more renewable wind and solar investments, and energy storage investments," Clark said. "There's a lot there, really, for everybody."


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