After a concerted effort by Republican lawmakers to stall progress on a policy that would lead to cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars, it looks today as if the long-awaited new standard is close to becoming a reality. It is designed to reduce oil Tyson Slocum "fuel efficiency standard"consumption by 2.2 million barrels a day and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons by 2025, according to the White House, which hammered out the deal with automakers in July 2011. That will be accomplished by requiring the industry to double the 2011 fuel-efficiency standard of 27.3 mpg to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Automakers have until 2017 to begin turning out vehicles that meet this requirement.

The new environmentally friendly policy resulted from the administration’s ability to extract “cooperation” from an industry at its most vulnerable. After the government bailed out General Motors with taxpayer dollars, the automakers had little choice but to go along with the administration’s proposed fuel-efficiency program – a regulatory policy it has resisted for decades.

President Barack Obama may have called the deal “the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” but it is clear that the industry had to be cornered first before it would agree to the landmark effort to benefit both our economy and the environment.

While Public Citizen applauds the new standard, we won’t kid ourselves about the automakers’ plans for compliance. They managed to build in some wiggle room with a loophole that allows for a 2018 review of the standard, opening the door to possibly adjusting the standard in its favor just one year after it takes effect. We can be sure the industry will attempt to make a case that it is too expensive to meet the federal goal of 54.5 mpg. And you can be just as sure that we will be there, working to hold them to it.

Tyson Slocum is Public Citizen’s energy program director. You can follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

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Nuclear waste cannistersRadioactive waste has often been referred to as the Achilles heel of nuclear power. It should be. It poses a threat to human health and our environment for hundreds of thousands of years. To date, a safe and viable way to permanently isolate it has not been identified. However, this dilemma has not kept nuclear out of the U.S. energy portfolio or dampened the zeal for a new generation of nuclear reactors by the industry and its congressional allies. A recent court decision, the termination of the Yucca Mountain geological repository and lessons from the Japan nuclear crisis present new arguments for why radioactive waste should be a chief reason we abandon nuclear power once and for all, but it is still might not be enough.

Getting around the waste issue

The dilemma of what to do with the high-level nuclear waste generated by reactors has always been divorced from the licensing process. In fact, those participating in licensing are not allowed to raise concerns about the waste that would be generated by a proposed reactor because of a generic rule set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1984 that is based on the so-called Waste Confidence Decision.

The main tenets of the Waste Confidence Decision are based on the assumptions that radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power plants can be safely disposed of, a permanent disposal site will eventually be available, and radioactive wastes can be safely stored onsite past the expiration of existing facility licenses until a permanent disposal site is available. But when it comes to waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, assumptions are a reckless gamble.

A federal court agrees.

No confidence

On June 8, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Waste Confidence Decision is inadequate and that the commission has failed to fully evaluate risks associated with its regulations on the storage of spent nuclear fuel as required under the National Environmental Policy Act

In other words, the reasonable assurances that have served as the rationale for allowing the use of an energy source whose byproduct poses a serious danger to human health – and because of its toxicity and longevity, must be permanently isolated from our environment – are not valid.

In response, 24 groups challenging both new reactor licenses and license renewals for existing reactors filed a petition urging the NRC to respond to the court ruling by freezing final licensing decisions until it has completed a rulemaking action on the environmental impacts of highly radioactive nuclear waste in the form of spent, or “used” reactor fuel storage and disposal.

On July 8, 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complied with the group’s request, stating, “in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.”

Contrary to initial reports, however, this doesn’t mean that there will be no new reactor until policy-makers decide the next course of action on nuclear waste management, Nor does it mean that existing reactors whose licenses expire will have to stop functioning.

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Failing to derail Obamacare before most of its benefits become abundantly clear– and dear– to Americans, Republicans have now intensified their attack of President Obama’s other landmark achievement, namely Wall Street reform.

Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Henserling’s WSJ column (July 25) is part of a sprawling GOP attack on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. In July alone, the assault included more than a dozen congressional hearings. The common theme of all: red tape wound around bankers from this law is stifling the economy.

For starters, Dodd-Frank remains largely unimplemented. Public Citizen documented that 80 percent of the rules stemming from Dodd-Frank aren’t in force.

Then there’s the issue of trusting bankers off the leash.  Rep. Henserling demonstrates impressive bravery in his defense of this industry. In the last few months, JP Morgan erased 20 percent of shareholder value with a $6 billion trading loss its CEO admitted was a “terrible mistake.” HSBC admitted to laundering money for Mexican drug lords and Middle East terrorists. Barclays admitted to fixing the world’s leading interest rate index. Peregrine Financial declared bankruptcy after stealing customer funds. Capital One snookered credit card customers.   Financial speculators drove up the cost of gasoline to $4/gallon. Standard Chartered did $250 billion in business with Iranian banks despite sanctions forbidding it to do so. The list goes on and on.

That’s quite a rogues gallery Rep. Henserling serves.  Wall Street campaign contributions may be the liquor behind his courage. Wall Street accounts for $831,000 in cash deposits into Henserling’s re-election efforts since the Wall St crash of ’08. That doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of more dollars into his leadership PAC.

In his article, Rep. Henserling revises history by claiming misguided government policy promoted  the high risk lending that inflated the housing bubble, not rogue banking, which caused the 2008 financial crash.  His evidence: Government sponsored securitizers bought 70 percent of the high risk loans. He fails to note that these loans accounted for a small percentage of failed mortgages.  Private securitizers account for the lion’s share of the problem. Yes, reform of government securitizers deserves urgent reform. Republicans, including Rep. Henserling, control the House. Yet this body has yet to produce any reform legislation.  Rep. Henserling claims speciously they’re waiting for President Obama.  (Why would they do that, if they consider so ill of his Wall Street reform act? )

Henserling claims existing banking law, well enforced, might have prevented inflation of the housing bubble, and that regulators did enjoy “the authority to prevent Wall Street from taking outsize risks.”  Fair point. Indeed, the regulators appointed by Republican President George W. Bush let Wall Street run wild, and ignored their own tools to arrest recklessness.  Much of that recklessness derived from the measure championed by fellow Texan Sen. Phil Gramm to join commercial and investment banking.

In many ways, the new Dodd-Frank law restates and reauthorizes regulatory power to combat recklessness.

The Volcker Rule, which Henserling decries as complex, aims to prevent bankers gambling with taxpayer-insured money.  A strong Volcker rule would have saved JP Morgan shareholders  from the gambling loss.

Dodd-Frank introduces transparency and price competition in the derivatives trading arena. Such transparency will help ensure consumers have access to competitively-priced energy commodities,  which will come at the expensive of runaway profits that the banks have made in these “dark markets“. The LIBOR scandal demonstrates traders willing to lie (for the price of a bottle of Bollinger champagne). Each dollar of bank derivative trading profit is a dollar that doesn’t go to real businesses attempting to hedge their risk.  Real economy firms who use hedges support derivative reform, such as the gas station owners organized as the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Henserling inexplicably claims would have prevented the creation of the ATM, just returned $140 million to snookered customers of Capital One.

Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. That’s because bankers blocked key reforms or added rotten provisions when Congress made this sausage. Henserling claims it didn’t truly solve the too-big-to-fail problem.  Bankers successfully blocked a key provision to cap the size of banks.  Even mega-bank creator Sanford Weill, former CEO of Citigroup, now acknowledges the banks should be broken up.

Since Wall Street crashed the economy under a Republican president, Rep. Henserling apparently feels compelled to produce this hash of history and analysis  in service of his political party. But Americans reeling from past and present Wall Street problems deserve better.

Tyson Slocum directs Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on twitter @tysonslocum. Bart Naylor is Public Citizen’s Financial Policy Advocate. CongressWatch intern Camille Lacour also contributed.

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Natural gas companies are contributing more money than ever to lobby politicians to support fracking. The current governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has received almost $1 million from the natural gas industry. The gas companies’ voices are being heard, but what about the citizens whose well-being is jeopardized by fracking?

For years, citizens have been taking action to oppose fracking in their state, but for the first time ever, those same citizens are coming together in Washington, D.C., to make sure their collective voice is heard.  To raise national awareness of anti-fracking movements across the nation, the first national anti-fracking rally, Stop the Frack Attack, is taking place on Saturday, July 28, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

Exempted from federal law

There are 34 states where oil and gas wells are being tapped through hydraulic fracturing. An average of 2,000 wells are being drilled every month.  Ninety percent of those wells are drilled using hydraulic fracturing. But despite the magnitude of drilling activity, fracking is exempted from every major environmental law including the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, due to the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s “Halliburton loophole,” so named because former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was instrumental in its passage.

A clear case for regulation

  • A congressional investigation found that fracking fluids at many drilling sites contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens.
  • In President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, he pledged to increase the use of natural gas found within shale rock formations, as well as “require all companies that drill for gas on public lands disclose the chemicals they use.” This would affect only a small portion of fracking activity because most fracking is being done on private land.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a study of fracking in Montana and found that fracking fluids contaminated drinking water.
  • Perhaps even more troubling is that Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead pressured the EPA to delay publishing the study’s results because he feared they would harm his state’s economic interests, not to mention the gas companies’ profits.

In recent years, fracking has been pursued with Gold Rush-like fervor by oil and gas companies. While we oppose fracking, we must recognize that there are both communities vulnerable to this practice and some that have already been affected. Let’s stop the frack attack by banning new fracking, but let’s also protect those already at risk through closing the federal regulatory loopholes on fracking.

During the 3- day Stop the Frack Attack event, more than 130 local and national organizations, including Public Citizen, will call on Congress to take action to protect community rights, public health, drinking water, and the global climate from the impacts of fracking. We will also demand the closure of legal loopholes that allow the oil and gas industry to ignore parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other bedrock environmental laws while fracking.

The anti-fracking movement is starting to grow, with recent celebrity endorsements from Mark Ruffalo, Lady Gaga and more than a hundred others, including Yoko Ono, who wrote the song “Don’t Frack My Mother.” To effectively protect the well-being of Americans, we need even more support, especially when proponents of fracking are hosting their own rallies.

Join the thousands already going to Stop the Frack Attack and come out to support clean water! Without your voice, local water supplies across the nation will continue to be contaminated.

 

Thaddeus Baringer – Intern at Public Citizen’s Energy Program

 

 

Regulators and the media are right to point to botched trading by JP Morgan Chase Bear Stearns that may result in as much as $7.5 billion in losses as evidence that “too big to fail” financial institutions continue the recklessness that prompted the 2008 meltdown. As attention is focused on the legal trading shenanigans of JP Morgan, many have overlooked their potential illegal trading. JP Morgan Ventures Energy Corp, the company’s energy trading unit, may be run like an Enron-esque enterprise, allegedly rigging bids to overcharge electricity consumers more than $70 million. Yet Dimon isn’t calling for the heads of those responsible, and hasn’t threatened to revoke the pay and bonuses of the traders that allegedly stole millions from American households. Moral of the story: if you lose money at JP Morgan, you’re fired. If you make money through potentially illegal and improper overcharges to the utility bills of tens of millions of
American families: no worries. That’s why Blythe Masters and other executives responsible for alleged price-rigging be fired if the allegations by the California Independent System Operator are true.

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