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Obama orders review of U.S. energy infrastructure

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Kiara Molina, of Harlem, NY, introduce him to speak at the White House in Washington January 9, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Kiara Molina, of Harlem, NY, introduce him to speak at the White House in Washington January 9, 2014.

By Jeff Mason and Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a broad review of the country's energy infrastructure, noting that factors such as rising demand and climate change have put increased pressure on the aging system.

In a statement announcing the launch of a Quadrennial Energy Review, the White House said an associated task force would spend the next year studying the systems required for "transporting, transmitting, and delivering energy."

The first report, with recommendations, would be due January 31, 2015.

"Our current infrastructure is increasingly challenged by transformations in energy supply, markets, and patterns of end use; issues of aging and capacity; impacts of climate change; and cyber and physical threats," said the president's memo establishing the review.

"Any vulnerability in this infrastructure may be exacerbated by the increasing interdependencies of energy systems with water, telecommunications, transportation, and emergency response systems."

The task force report would serve as a "roadmap" to address such challenges, the memo said.

Plans for the Quadrennial Energy Review, known as a QER, have been underway for months. Global energy markets have been transformed by a boom in U.S. shale oil and natural gas production, and the administration must deal with issues including pipelines, fracking and transport of crude oil by rail. There have also been calls to allow exports of U.S. crude.

The White House noted that domestic oil production has grown more than 50 percent since Obama took office in 2009 and natural gas production was at its highest-ever levels, conditions that were testing aging U.S. infrastructure.

Some lawmakers, including Lisa Murkowski of oil-rich Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, are pressing the government to end a decades-old ban on exporting U.S. crude oil.

Energy experts welcomed the move.

"This action taken by the White House is a smart one," said Margot Anderson, executive director of think tank Bipartisan Policy Center's Energy Project. "A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill calling for a QER in the last few Congresses, and many think tanks and groups off the Hill have also hailed the utility of a QER."

The idea of a QER has been in discussion for years. It was one of the recommendations made last March by the president's high-profile Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for his second-term climate strategy.

Obama also called for the QER in a June speech unveiling his climate change action plan.

The review would be similar to the energy department's ongoing Quadrennial Technology Review, which assesses the agency's technology policies. It also resembles the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, which assesses current threats, challenges and capabilities to better address future conflicts.

David Pumphrey, a former deputy assistant secretary for international energy cooperation at the Department of Energy, said the January 2015 deadline was aggressive given the amount of work required to bring the involved agencies together.

"I think this is an important effort to try to come up with something that's been very difficult in the past, which is integrating a wide variety of views in the administration about the various aspects of energy policy," said Pumphrey, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank.

He said it was possible that big policy decisions, such as the issue of U.S. oil exports, would be timed so as not to pre-empt the results of the QER.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Gregorio)

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