Just as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is beginning to approve new nuclear reactor designs and sites, potentially heralding a new renaissance of nuclear power, the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (Commission) reports that our failure to properly manage nuclear waste is, “damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future.” At two hearings this week, the House and Senate analyzed the recommendations of the Commission, chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and rehashed their serious concerns over the treatment of nuclear waste to-date.
Per their presidential charter, the Commission could not and did not evaluate the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, and did not take any position on the administration’s request to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application that effectively closed operations at the facility. As the pro-nuclear community has pointed out time and time again, President Obama, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and with the help of his volatile NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, contravened the express will of congress as laid out in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. That he commissioned this body to find a new path forward on nuclear waste management indicates, as Energy and Economy Chairman John Shimkus so eloquently put it, that Obama needed some help “covering their rear ends on this.”
The fact of the matter is that the talented minds of the Commission have laid out eight spot-on recommendations for the future of our national nuclear waste management program:
1. Develop a consent-based approach to siting future waste management facilities,
2. Create a new organization wholly dedicated to implementing the waste management program,
3. Give that organization the funds (about $750 million annually) that nuclear ratepayers provide,
4. Develop one or more geologic disposal facilities,
5. Develop one or more consolidated/interim storage facilities,
6. Prepare for the large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste,
7. Support continued US innovation in nuclear energy technology and workforce development, and
8. Take on an active international role to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.
Moving quickly on these recommendations is not only necessary, but it will help restore a considerable dearth of trust in the government’s ability to safely manage nuclear fuels and wastes, and can support a new generation of reactor construction and high-skill engineering jobs.
What is also true is that these recommendations do not and should not preclude the storage of nuclear waste at the one facility we have sited, thoroughly researched, and constructed already. What Henry Waxman calls “the narrow obsession with Yucca Mountain” is an attempt by pro-nuclear and practically-minded individuals to responsibly store our nation’s growing nuclear waste stockpile at a reasonable price to the American tax payer in a reasonable period of time. To be frank, Yucca Mountain was obligated to start accepting waste by 1998; every year in delay costs millions of dollars in judgments paid out to the nuclear utilities currently storing this waste on their front lawn.
Yes, we need to advance the game, and the politics of Yucca Mountain are not bound to improve in the short term. Certainly, our national conversation needs to advance beyond Yucca as the only solution. But to allow Harry Reid and anti-nuclear politicians in the Congress to hold waste disposal hostage is a dire and expensive mistake. That they are not satisfied with the Yucca Mountain solution and find themselves above the law reflects a pitiful immaturity and an impertinent opinion that politicking supersedes the national interest.
President Obama flouted the law at the behest of powerful congressional democrats and he should be held accountable. We can only hope to correct this damage in the long run, and to put to use the 30-year, $15 billion investment awaiting nuclear fuel in the Nevada desert. Otherwise, the legacy of our nuclear program will be a stockpile of nuclear waste scattered about the country and the costly burden of a bureaucratic failure.
Today marks the beginning of considerations for a long-awaited game changer in energy & infrastructure policy, the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act”: a bill that dedicates oil & gas royalties to funding the nation’s transportation system, reduces long environmental review processes, and shifts more control over infrastructure development to states and private companies.
A marathon markup in the House Committee on Natural Resources considered three pieces of legislation to open domestic resources and raise royalty revenues that will finance investments in the national transportation infrastructure. The first bill, from Rep. Doug Lamborn, would accelerate the research and development of commercially-elusive oil shale resources in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. A second, from Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, would open up drilling in a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a resource-laden but environmentally sensitive area on Alaska’s North Slope. The final piece would expand development of the Outer Continental Shelf, specifically portions of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and was offered by Rep. Steve Stivers. All three energy bills were successfully passed out of Committee, despite considerable opposition and numerous amendments from Democratic members.
Tomorrow, the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee will consider the accompanying 5-year infrastructure bill. The language includes considerations to expedite environmental reviews that can hold up major infrastructure investments – and related jobs – and deliver new authorities to the states to determine how to spend transportation dollars. Importantly, this package also promises to be earmark-free. If passed as intended, this language is a meaningful departure from the existing, largely federally-directed, oft-earmarked investment system that brought us the infamous Road to Nowhere.
To be sure, this legislation is not without controversy, even among conservatives. The choice to use energy royalty revenues to fund roads, and not just gas tax revenues, divorces our investment decisions from the historic and effective user-pays principle. In the absence of political will (or public interest) to raise the gas tax and finance new infrastructure, however, this bill marks a substantial move by House Republicans to offer innovative solutions to pressing American problems. As Speaker Boehner put it, “this bill represents a new vision: Repair infrastructure through a streamlined process, with zero earmarks, and no tax hikes – and help pay for it by allowing expansion of American energy production.”
While negotiations on a final transportation bill with the Senate may not go smoothly – there is very little support in that body to use energy revenues to finance improvements, and the Senate version funds infrastructure for only two years – at least House Republicans are acting in good faith to offer truly innovative solutions to long-standing problems. With Senate Democrats and the president sitting on the sidelines, this is the best chance we have to get Americans back to work in energy and infrastructure, reduce the strain of infrastructure spending, and improve transparency with a smaller, smarter government.
President Obama may have an abysmal track record on expanding access to American energy, but that didn’t stop him from grandstanding at the State of the Union. He promised to “take every possible action” to develop shale gas resources, a proposal that requires expanded use of hydraulic fracturing techniques. We’ve already pointed out that this platform doesn’t reconcile with the onerous regulatory agenda of his EPA, which has three new regulations for this industry in the pipeline. Today, House Science takes a look at EPA’s study of hydraulic fracturing on ground water, a study that is already the subject of substantial controversy and which may be used to justify more job-killing regulation for a booming industry that could put millions of Americans back to work developing domestic energy.
EPA set out to understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking and ground water at the request of Congress. It was designed to examine the “fracking” water, from acquisition through disposal, including how water is managed during the drilling process at sites in the Wind River Basin near Pavillion, Wyoming. EPA released preliminary results at the end of last year which suggested that chemicals used in the fracturing process could be contaminating groundwater. The release of this data significantly damaged the public’s view of natural gas drilling, and prompted the Governor of Delaware to prevent drilling in the state, despite some major issues with the study: the type of hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion differed from methods used elsewhere with different geological characteristics, the drilling was unusually close to water wells, and the EPA methodology for both drilling the wells and sampling the water has been called into question by experts.
Of course, developing natural gas at the expense of public health and environmental contamination is a nonstarter. Drilling companies work diligently to construct wells that protect the environment and effectively extract resources; a leak in a well not only means future liability for the company, but less of the resource they profit from. If current methods for hydraulic fracturing do pose a risk for contaminating drinking and ground water, the industry should logically move rapidly to adopt new techniques and safeguards. But if the EPA results are demonstrated to be faulty, and contamination detected in Pavillion is not related to existing hydraulically fracked wells, then the EPA has dealt a significant blow to the industry and to the public’s trust in the integrity of government science.
The Science Committee is right to analyze the EPA study and to question EPA’s reluctance to release key information associated with significant concerns over their methodology and sample size in an area with longstanding water quality issues and a 50 year history of oil & gas development. In response to these concerns, EPA released the data to properly evaluate their study only last night. As Energy & Environment Subcommittee Chairman Harris points out, the purpose of the hearing is whether “the investigation was conducted in a scientifically robust manner that justifies all this upheaval” in the perception and treatment of the hydraulic fracturing industry. Undoubtedly, further study and consideration is necessary. Let’s hope EPA gets it right.
As a member of the McCain campaign that popularized the “all-of-the-above” slogan, I shudder at the president’s use of the term. While we used the phrase to talk about opening up energy development and innovation in every corner, Obama is trying to pacify disgruntled Americans who are sick of his “anything-but-fossil” energy policies. In a deft re-election tack, the president seems to have figured out that oil & gas development can actually be good politics. Unfortunately, he has yet to discover that it is also good policy.
This administration – contrary to their press releases – has hardly lifted a finger to increase production of oil & gas. In the State of the Union, the president proudly declared that he’d open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources to development. This is part of Interior’s existing five year offshore leasing program, which comprises fifteen new lease sales in the Gulf and Alaska – fourteen of those sales in areas already being explored and developed under active leases. Moreover, this five year plan largely prohibits the study of offshore resources on the east and west coasts, including an area near Virginia that the Bush administration had slated to open, meaning we’re no closer to understanding what those resources look like. A real transformation in our offshore exploration policy would have opened up new areas to assessments of potentially recoverable resources – not more lease sales in the same areas we’ve been exploring for a generation.
President Obama also promised to open up shale gas development across the country. Shale gas is a fantastic opportunity to redefine the geopolitics of natural gas and create plentiful jobs in this country; a commitment to develop those resources would be meaningful indeed. Unfortunately, the EPA is starting to regulate the hydraulic fracturing process that the industry is using for the first time. EPA has already proposed a Clean Air Act rule requiring costly equipment targeted at drilling rigs, they are conducting research in preparation for new water regulations for those rigs, and they’re moving forward with regulation requiring disclosure of the fluids used while drilling, despite a successful voluntary initiative already underway. Leave it to this administration to find that three new regulations align with a pro-development stance.
Also troubling, but not new, is that the president again proposed to cut subsidies for oil companies to increase incentives for renewables. A true all-of-the-above energy policy wouldn’t penalize one energy source to benefit another. Obama would single out tax credits to oil companies in order to fund expanded subsidies for renewables through more grants, more loan guarantees, and more tax credits than they receive already. Our energy sector would function better, and our nation’s balance sheet would improve, if we equalized the treatment of energy across the board and gave all energy sources fair treatment. More dollars to favored industries interferes with a vibrant, competitive energy market.
I get it. If the president talks enough about his all-of-the-above policies, maybe we’ll forget about his abject failures in advancing the energy game. But more important are the things the president didn’t talk about. He left out all mention of the Keystone pipeline in his State of the Union, knowing it was an unpopular – and damaging – decision. He left out all mention of failed loan guarantees to Solyndra, which his administration approved despite Solyndra’s pitiful business plan. He left out all mention of the threat that EPA regulation has on energy producers and jobs, despite evidence that the compliance burden is unaffordable. He left out all mention of nuclear power. While a boom in shale gas makes the economics of nuclear power uncompetitive at the moment, Obama’s regulatory chokehold on natural gas just might mean a resurgence in the nuclear sector – and electricity prices.
If we didn’t need jobs, maybe Obama’s energy agenda could be mistaken as harmless folly. But we need a new domestic energy game that is truly all-of-the-above, pushing both development of our vast natural resources and innovation of the technologies that will fuel us tomorrow. The president’s empty promises are a guarantee for partisanship and gridlock in Washington – and limited progress in American energy.
This piece first appeared on the National Journal Energy & Environment Expert Blog
Amid all the grandiose, non-specific commitments to American energy and the gobs of subsidies, tax incentives, and handouts he threw around at the State of the Union last night, President Obama picked up on the same common conservative vernacular – and McCain campaign slogan – as White House press secretary Jay Carney, and told us he was committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. The only trouble is Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy is old, recycled policy, and America’s all-of-the-above strategy is aimed at future growth and energy independence.
Let’s look at what the president committed to.
Open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. This sounds like a major promise, but the president’s already made it. This past November, the Department of Interior released an offshore development plan providing for 15 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska that would allegedly open up access to 75% of offshore resources. But 14 of those sales are in areas already being explored and developed under active leases. The plan also inhibited any study of or exploration for oil and gas resources off the east and west coasts, despite substantial support for development in the Atlantic. This “commitment” has already been implemented and indicates a relatively minor change in our national offshore development strategy.
Take every possible action to safely develop natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling techniques used in tandem have opened up cost-effective access to unconventional forms of oil and natural gas more than a mile below the earth’s surface. The president himself admitted last night that this production is a major job creator; at the same time, his EPA is wading into regulation of the industry for the first time. Last August, EPA proposed a controversial rule requiring well operators to install costly equipment seemingly aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Today, they are preparing for potential new regulations by undertaking a nation-wide study on the possible impact fracking may have on water quality, despite all evidence suggesting that fracked wells do not contaminate water. They’re also moving to require disclosure of fracking fluids, despite a successful voluntary initiative already underway. Three burdensome regulations on an emerging industry largely comprising small businesses do not indicate any will to “take every possible action” to develop this significant, clean, and domestic resource.
Double-down on clean energy and end tax incentives for oil companies. In his last two budgets, the President proposed doing away with about $4 billion in annual subsidies for oil companies. This was greeted with celebration from the renewable sector and the environmental movement, groups that think ending subsidies for fossil fuels will immediately tilt the balance in favor of renewables. The only problem is that the president is actually proposing to do away with tax deductions that apply to many industries, certainly not just big oil, and will reduce incentives to develop domestic oil and natural gas. In any case, big oil is often already penalized, being allowed just a percentage of many of these deductions. Obama would use savings from assembling a punitive tax code to “double-down” on new, wasteful incentives designed to prop up companies and technologies that are not commercially viable on their own. This sounds like a lot of Solyndras all over again.
Develop enough clean energy on public land to power three million homes. Again, the president uses his State of the Union address to make an old promise all over again. In the 2011-2016 Strategic Plan, Department of Interior committed to approve 10,000 MW of renewable energy for installation on public lands by 2012 – roughly the amount of power Obama committed to last night. What’s more, Interior has already approved 27 projects to power upwards of 2 million homes, and the department is geared toward prioritizing California’s in-state goal of reaching 33% renewable power by 2020. On top of that, the president lauded a commitment by Navy to purchase clean energy. He didn’t explain that Navy has been working diligently toward installing solar and other renewable energy since 2008, and has recently invested heavily in the development of non-food based biofuels for ships, vessels, and aircraft. This is hardly a significant, new national commitment to renewable energy.
Give businesses incentives to eliminate energy waste in factories and buildings. People familiar with national efficiency policy might notice that this sounds an awful lot like last year’s Better Buildings Initiative. The only difference is that last night Obama moved past private-sector commitments to energy efficiency and an effort to retrofit federal buildings, and offered direct incentives to businesses to undertake these investments with government funds. What’s particularly remarkable is that the administration has worked at length to develop financial products that make energy efficiency retrofit financing more accessible, meaning private investment is already poised to take off. Federal subsidies for this work will only increase the deficit without any increase in efficiency investment or employment.
Let’s also look at what the president left out. He didn’t mention Keystone XL pipeline, ready to create thousands of skilled, private sector jobs at no expense to government. He didn’t mention loan guarantees to renewable companies like Solyndra, which we now know had a business plan poised for failure. And he didn’t mention the suggestions of his own Jobs Council to “expeditiously” move forward on an “all-in” approach to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and increase diversity in electricity generation.
President Obama might talk about his commitment to an “all-of-the-above” approach to domestic energy, but his real commitment is to old, recycled ideas. For the environmental lobby, that may be green enough.