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Life on the Hill

Inside the U.S. Senate’s energy debate.
December 18, 2007

On the very day I arrived on Capitol Hill last June, the energy bill H.R. 6 went to the Senate floor. As a result, I spent the first week of my internship with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources researching facts about geothermal power and other renewable energy sources to prepare for the ensuing debate. (If anyone’s wondering about the MIT Energy Initiative’s impact on real-world politics, I pulled data for a floor chart from The Future of Geothermal Energy, a report by an MIT-led panel, and I saw staffers on both sides of the aisle reading that report and MIT studies on nuclear power and coal.) Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), one of the bill’s sponsors and chairman of the committee, requested floor privileges for the interns so we could have a front-row seat for the debate.

Matthew Zedler at commencement with his parents, Barbara and Peter Zedler.

I spent hours watching Bingaman eloquently argue for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS)–a policy mandating that utility companies generate a certain percentage of the nation’s energy from alternative sources–as Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) and Lamar ­Alexander (R-Tennessee) lambasted the Democratic idea and proposed a more relaxed RPS that would have included nuclear power and energy efficiency measures as “renewables.” After a particularly heated debate about wind power in his home state, Ken Salazar (D-­Colorado) came by and told my boss, the committee chief of staff, to help “win this one for us.” One afternoon I almost walked into Barack Obama (D-­Illinois) as I exited the chamber.

My stint in DC began the day after I graduated from MIT. Less than 30 hours after picking up my mechanical-­engineering degree in Killian Court, I was moving into a dorm room at George Washington University. As a Truman fellow, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill for the summer while living with a group of about 50 graduates from around the nation. I also took part in several events organized for the Course XVII program that places MIT and University of Virginia engineering students in policy positions in Washington for the summer. As a result, I got to meet and speak with State Department officials and White House science advisor John Marburger–as well as MIT president Susan Hockfield and president emeritus Charles Vest.

The energy bill consumed what seemed like a long three weeks, but it passed the Senate with amendments after a relatively short period of debate. Bingaman’s RPS didn’t make it into the final bill, but corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards were increased for the first time in decades. More ethanol production was mandated, along with energy efficiency in government buildings, research on carbon sequestration, and price controls on gasoline.

Of course, none of that really matters unless similar legislation is passed in the House of Representatives and the conferenced bill is signed into law by the president. And as I saw firsthand last summer, political maneuvering can hinder the adoption of good policy. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-­California) tried to push for a House energy bill by the July 4 recess, but House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Michigan), under pressure from the automakers in his state, prevented that from happening. Pelosi’s Plan B was to finish a package on energy and climate change right before the 2008 presidential election. Despite my frustration at seeing how slowly Washington’s wheels turn, I realized that Congress’s inefficiencies are at least partly beneficial, in that they prevent ill-­considered legislation from becoming law. (The recent surge in oil prices may speed things up, though; as I write this, Pelosi is talking about accelerating the time line for the energy bill.)

Last summer I found reason to be optimistic about the kind of legislation I care about. Washington’s small but strong scientific and engineering community is helping frame much of the energy legislation. Doctoral students on fellowships, as well as engineers, are working to create intelligent and well-designed policy. During my internship, I researched and wrote a white paper on how to fund applied energy research and bridge the “valley of death” between invention and innovation. I worked to set up some briefings on China and energy security and attended hearings and briefings all over the Hill to learn about plug-in hybrids, climate change, coal studies, and geothermal energy.

There’s so much work to be done. In 1821, Thomas Jefferson observed, “If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?” Getting a few MIT engineers into public service might help our government talk less and do more.

After his summer on Capitol Hill, Matthew Zedler ‘07 headed for China, where he’s researching automobile fuel consumption projections and China’s energy situation for Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

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