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Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to confirm Allison Macfarlane as the new chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Republican Kristine Svinicki to serve a second five-year term on the commission. The full Senate is sure to follow suit. But with their confirmations secure, many questions still remain.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC?

Macfarlane’s nomination came in the wake of commission chair Gregory Jaczko’s resignation.  His announcement on May 21 may help bring closure to an ugly period of upheaval at the NRC, but it also illustrates a disturbing precedent. In October, Jaczko’s fellow commissioners, in a letter to the White House, alleged that Jaczko had bullied and intimidated staff. The letter resulted in an internal investigation and several congressional hearings to scrutinize Jaczko’s commission leadership and management. While the allegations have not been substantiated, Jaczko’s history of standing up to the nuclear industry and strong safety voting record suggest an orchestrated effort to remove Jaczko from the NRC.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC? During her opening remarks at last week’s confirmation hearing, Macfarlane said she will push to “make the agency more open, efficient and transparent.” Later she promised “a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels,” saying an agency empowered to protect public safety, such as the NRC, “requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity.”

Would Svinicki have been confirmed independent of Macfarlane?

Svinicki’s reappointment comes just days before the expiration of her first term.  The strong opposition of the clean-energy community and Democratic leadership to a second term could have held up her re-nomination; however Democratic opposition to Svinicki was defused by Republicans’ agreement to approve Macfarlane’s appointment. This type of political horse trading has no place in determining the body of regulators responsible for maintaining the highest possible protection for the public against the dangerous of nuclear power.

Clean-energy advocates’ opposition to Svinicki’s re-nomination is well founded. Commissioner Svinicki has repeatedly voted against safety measures that could have improved protection for both the public and environment. She has not earned a second term and therefore should not be allowed to retain her position as part of negotiated deal. The stakes are too high.

Will Svinicki continue to block safety reforms?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still in the process of implementing recommendations made by Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima. In December, Svinicki voted against the task force’s   recommendation to consider all the post-Fukushima safety upgrades to be mandatory for the “adequate protection” of nuclear power plants.  Svinicki’s pro-industry voting record after the past five years, including impeding implementation of post-Fukushima safety reforms, does not  provide confidence that the commissioner will support the necessary reforms to improve nuclear safety.

New leadership at the NRC will be tasked with not only implementing the lessons learned from the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, but boosting public trust in an agency responsible for safeguarding our nuclear fleet. Returning Svinicki to the commission would impede these critical goals.

While it remains to be seen what kind of commissioner she will be, Allison Macfarlane’s experience in the field of nuclear safety and waste management makes her a good candidate to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On the other hand, we already have seen the poor performance of Commissioner Svinicki. She still has a lot to answer for.

Photo courtesy of NRCgov

 

 

http://www.sanders.senate.gov/imo/media/image/oilmoney2.jpgWe have a powerful new tool to take on the fossil fuel industry and level the energy playing field.

Last week, new legislation was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Keith Ellison that would repeal $113 billion of tax-breaks, handouts and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the next 10 years.

View the list of subsidies the End Welfare Pollution Act, if passed, would repeal.

Federal subsidies and tax credits can be beneficial for short-term support of emerging technologies that help society as a whole.

Unfortunately, the mature fossil fuel industry is subsidized at nearly six times the rate of renewable energy. And unlike renewable energy incentives, which periodically expire and require Congress to approve extending, the fossil fuel industry has dozens of subsidies permanently engrained in the tax code from decades of successful lobbying.

With the burning of fossil fuels increasingly destabilizing our climate, why do we keep subsidizing the problem?

Eliminating fossil fuel handouts will go a long way toward advancing solutions like new innovations in the clean energy sector.

We can’t afford to keep throwing gobs of money at the fossil fuel industry.  Support the effort to end welfare to polluting industries.

The current rise in gas prices has escalated partisan bickering about what factors determine the cost of gas and how we can address the volatility of prices. In an effort to cut through the competing rhetoric about gas prices and the various legislative efforts aimed at lowering them, Public Citizen recently hosted a webinar titled “Gas Prices: Beyond Supply and Demand,” in which we explained the cost of gasoline from oil well to pump, exposed how Wall Street artificially drives up gas prices and identified the ways American consumers can fight back against Big Oil and financial speculators.

View Gas Prices: Beyond Supply and Demand

The Q & A portion of the webinar provided an opportunity to broaden our discussion to include other elements related to oil consumption, additional factors that affect domestic gas prices and potential short-term policy fixes to lower the cost of gas.

Below are three questions raised by webinar participants that represent the scope of issues discussed during the April 26 webinar.

The use of oil beyond transportation fuel

How much oil is being used to create plastic products?

Petroleum products include transportation fuels, fuel oils for heating and electricity generation, asphalt and road oil, and the feedstocks used to make chemicals, plastics and synthetic materials found in a wide range of consumer products. About 71 percent of petroleum that we use is for transportation fuels. Petroleum feedstocks make up about 2 percent. Two percent sounds small, but the U.S. consumes seven billion barrels of oil a year, which means 140 million barrels of oil are used for consumer products like bottles, containers and bags.

Many people depend on their cars to get around, so they have little choice but to purchase gasoline. However, it’s much easier to avoid using plastic products and thereby reduce demand for petroleum products through consumer purchase power.

The role of refineries

What is the relationship between the glut of oil storage facilities in Cushing, Okla., and the closing of East Coast refineries?

Refineries are where crude oil is processed and refined into petroleum products like gasoline. There are about 140 refining facilities in the U.S. Refining profitability is largely determined by the margin between the cost of crude oil and the value of the refined product. The current squeeze on U.S. refineries is due to the combination of high oil prices and weak domestic demand for gasoline. As a result, we have refinery overcapacity, which is pushing down refining profit margins, persuading large refining facilities in the northeast to close their doors. Why in the northeast?

Refiners in the northeast are typically fitted to process “sweet” oil from Brent crude, imported from oil fields in the North Sea, which is easier to refine but considerably more expensive than sour crude, which comes from Canada, the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico and South America. Northeast refineries also process West Texas Intermediate crude, a grade of sweet oil similar to Brent, but that is produced in North America.

Refineries in the Midwest are fitted to refine the heavier crudes and have access to the West Texas Intermediate crude.

Refineries have an incentive to either close or boost exports (we’re now exporting 3 million barrels of refined petroleum products every day) to keep gasoline prices higher than they otherwise would be.

Other solutions to lowering gas prices?

Will releasing oil from the strategic reserves lower gas prices?

In response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Congress created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). In the event of a severe energy supply interruption, the president has the authority to release oil from the SPR.

The question, then, is not just whether releasing reserves lowers gas prices, but whether high gas prices are the result of a severe energy supply interruption. Minor supply disruptions took place in Libya and Yemen due to political turmoil and in Iran due to sanctions. Some argue that releasing the SPR could reduce pressure on the prices of oil by increasing supply and disarming speculation, which could temporarily help reduce gasoline prices.

However, we are not in a state of severe supply disruption, and releasing reserves to help control gas prices might not be a legitimate use for the stockpiles. Further, it would not address the fundamental issues with financial speculators in the commodities market. Releasing the reserves is a short-term response with a definitive end. Once the release ends, speculation will ramp back up.

In addition to providing education on these issues, Public Citizen is working to hold Wall Street accountable for oil market manipulation, limit the influence of financial speculators on gas prices, and promote clean energy technology and alternative fuels to decrease our dependency on oil.

Learn more about our work.

Do you have questions related to gas prices or the oil market? Submit a question in the comment section below.

 

Click above to see videoYesterday, I appeared live on Fox’s Varney & Co to discuss volatility in the solar industry market. I urged viewers to take the long view in measuring solar’s critical role in America’s energy system. I noted that a few solar industry bankruptcies (Solar Millennium, Energy Conversion Devices, Solyndra) stem from the shakeout caused by continued cheap Chinese solar manufacturing that’s flooded the market (“the prices of solar modules, or panels, fell 50 percent
last year, largely as a result of the cheap Chinese imports
“) at the same time that European countries are pulling back demand-based subsidies. Coupled with no coherent domestic regulatory or incentive structure to promote solar consumption here at home (and with continued flat-lining electricity demand in general), weaker solar manufactures are falling by the wayside, leaving deep-pocketed, superior businesses to remain. Those interpreting solar market volatility as a sign that it isn’t ready for prime time are wrong.  Out of chaos comes great opportunity, and, ultimately, a stronger manufacturing market. The question isn’t whether solar will be a part of our energy mix, it’s whether U.S. manufacturers will be.

At the conclusion of the Fox debate, the anchors continued the discussion for a few minutes after I left. During this time, the female Fox anchor said (beginning at 4:32 of the video linked to this blog post image) that Solar Trust (and its parent, Solar Millennium) were the recipient of a “$2.1 billion” Obama-directed taxpayer loan. Which is 100% false. Solar Trust turned down the government’s $2.1 billion offer in August 2011, mainly because the government places such onerous restrictions on the recipient. I assume Fox will issue a public correction.

Fox also criticized my claim that solar could represent 5-10% of our electricity supply by 2022, given the appropriate regulatory framework (national carbon price, federal feed-in tariff, coherent and firm EPA emission rules, etc). This is in line with the government’s SunShot report that predicts, “solar energy meeting 14% of U.S. electricity needs by 2030“.

As I’ve said before, loan guarantees are an awful way to promote renewables - we are a consumption-based economy, and we need to stimulate renewable energy demand – U.S. manufacturers will follow.

Tyson Slocum directs Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @tysonslocum

The Obama Adminitration’s announcement a while back to “streamline” the permitting process for 7 major electricity transmission lines in an effort to “create jobs” and promote wind energy is proble"power lines"matic. While the projects would benefit proposed wind farms, the fact is that existing coal-fired and nuclear power plant infrastructure appear to be the big winners. And at least two of the projects get to charge consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in rate incentives authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the expectation that investors needed the extra money because of the implicit difficulty in getting the necessary approval to build.
A recent analysis by Roger Bezdek in the February 2012 issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly argues that new transmission needs to link proposed new large scale, centralized renewable energy projects (mandated through a proposed federal Renewable Energy Standard, under Bezdek’s assumptions) “could enable expansion of coal-fired generation by the equivalent of about 30 new coal plants by 2020,” mainly because the added transmission, coupled with coal’s continued price advantage, will make more existing coal capacity available, since “utilization of the existing coal fleet is currently about 72 to 74 percent. However, this can be increased to about 85 percent if there’s enough transmission to transmit the added coal generation to the load at nights and weekends.” Now, Bezdek’s analysis is not specifically applied to the “fast-tracked” 7 transmission projects, but you get the idea.
For a swirling debate that often pits the Chamber of Commerce and multinational corporations against Obama on regulations, it seems strange that Obama’s proposed gutting of transmission siting regulations has received a collective yawn from environmentalists and many in the pro-regulation community. These days it appears as though Obama governs through press release, wrapping any initiative with “jobs” or “green energy” no matter how tenuous the claim. Touting transmission line projects as vehicles to “create jobs” is not efficient, and a close analysis of the transmission lines clearly show that coal-burning power plants will be the big winners.
Siting towering, multi-state transmission lines has been the traditional job of states. But with NIMBYism giving rise to NOPE (Not on Planet Earth) – due mainly to millions of new people now living in broad swaths of These United States where once only cows and tumbleweeds reigned, as evidenced by an increase of population density of 105% between 1950 and 2010 (from 42.6 people per sq mile to 87.4), it can get awfully difficult for corporations to build large projects sometimes. Not that that’s a bad thing. Unlike China, which can forcibly remove 1.3 million people to make way for giant energy projects at the drop of a hat, here in America we have the 5th Amendment protecting us.
In contrast, we ought to be focusing on YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard!) microgrid projects serving rooftop solar.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 supposedly granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commisison (FERC) new “backstop” authority to site transmission lines, in Section 1221, but only if states “withheld approval for more than one year.” But in 2009 the 4th Circuit rejected FERC’s interpretation of this authority. Courts also struck down FERC’s Section 368 authority to establish National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors that would have usurped existing state authority. However futile FERC’s efforts have been, Section 1221 of EPAct 2005 designated the Department of Energy as the “lead agency for purposes of coordinating” transmission projects on Federal lands. And it is this Section 1221 authority that Obama is utilizing with these 7 projects, as all cross major chunks of the public’s land.

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