A town hall meeting in Fort Smith focused on energy held Monday night (May 16) by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, did generate a little heat.
About 30 minutes into the 90-minute meeting held at the Donald W. Reynolds Cancer Support House, Womack was interrupted by one of the about 65 in attendance. Eddie Holt of Fort Smith wanted to challenge Womack on the GOP stance on the federal debt ceiling, asking Womack if he supported House Speaker John Boehner’s budget policies that would, according to Holt, create more chaos than rising fuel prices.
Womack promised to get to Holt’s question if Holt would let him finish his opening remarks. Before proceeding, Womack encouraged the crowd to be civil.
The session began with Womack — recently appointed to the House Energy Action Team — touting the GOP line by saying the Obama Administration needs to “take the lock” off domestic energy production. Womack said he didn’t want the meeting to “morph into a partisan deal,” but then attacked the Obama Administration’s energy policy — or lack thereof.
“This particular President doesn’t have much of an energy policy,” Womack told a largely approving crowd.
As a member of the newly appointed HEAT team, Womack said his responsibility is to gather input from constituents. The HEAT group is small in number, but not influence. In addition to Womack, HEAT members are House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
According to a statement from Womack’s office, HEAT is a “committed group of House members” focused on the education and promotion of energy policies “that will address rising energy prices, create thousands of good jobs and enhance our national security by promoting energy independence for America.”
On Wednesday, Womack heads with other members of Congress to the Gulf of Mexico to tour oil and natural gas production operations there. They’ll tour a Chevron oil platform on Thursday.
Continuing, Womack noted: “This country has the capacity to be energy independent, but we just choose not to do so.”
According to figures provided by Womack, Democrats in Congress and Obama are blocking access to more than 914 billion barrels of oil in regions controlled by the U.S. The federal Energy Information Administration reports that the U.S. uses about 6.85 billion barrels of oil a year.
Womack said the GOP wants to push a plan expanding domestic energy production and pursues an “all-of-the-above” approach that includes natural gas, nuclear, wind and other alternative energy sources.
When Womack completed his remarks, Holt quickly criticized him for not including the effects of “Wall Street speculators” who were allowed to manipulate the markets. Holt said Republican curbs to speculation oversight is the real cause of the spike in energy prices.
Womack responded by saying if the the U.S. would produce more of its own energy, “blips” in the Middle East wouldn’t result in drastic rises in oil prices.
However, before Womack could finish his response, Holt left the room, calling Womack a “phony.”
There were several in the audience who encouraged Womack to do more to support the use of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, nuclear energy and reduce overall reliance on oil imports. One audience member asked Womack to consider turning alternative energy solutions over to NASA engineers.
Russ Bragg, an executive with Fort Smith-based OK Industries, said the use of ethanol has created a rise in corn prices likely to increase by $100 million the price the company will pay for corn in 2011. OK Industries is a regional poultry processing company that employs about 5,000 in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
Womack reminded the crowd he is pushing legislation that would remove federal incentives from ethanol production.
Womack agreed with audience comments, especially on natural gas and nuclear energy. He said an effective U.S. energy policy must find a way to create the stability needed for Americans to securely invest in CNG vehicle conversions and fueling facilities. Womack, who grew up in Russellville, home of a nuclear energy plant with two reactors, has no problems with nuclear energy.
“I’m a big believer in the nuclear product,” he said.
In an interview after the town hall meeting, Womack acknowledged that energy policy has floundered under Democratic and Republican Presidents. But he is optimistic that the call for energy independence that has cycled since the early 1970s may soon find more fertile ground.
“Why? Because we’ve already had major success in changing the discussion in Washington from ‘How much do we spend?’ to ‘How much do we cut?’ ... I’m convinced, and it won’t be easy, but I’m convinced we will have similar success with energy (policy),” Womack said.