March 25, 2011

In This Issue

NUCLEAR CRISIS: LAWMAKERS URGE NRC TO RAMP UP, REVIEW PLANT SAFETY STANDARDS

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened March 16 for a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan and its implications for the United States.

Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, especially reactors that lie on fault lines and are calling for new reviews.  Lawmakers with nuclear power plants in their states raised concerns that NRC has not yet taken proactive measures to ensure the safety of the U.S. plants that use similar technology as the Fukushima plant. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cited examples in Switzerland and Germany where older nuclear plants have temporarily been shut down in the wake of the Japanese disaster to ensure their safety.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that 23 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors use the same General Electric Mark I boiling water containment design as those at the Japanese plant. They stressed that precautions have been taken at each plant to avoid disasters such as the one brought about in Japan from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Jaczko maintained that NRC plans to conduct a “systematic and methodical review” of the Japanese situation and would apply that to its review of the safety of U.S. reactors.

Chairwoman Boxer and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) issued a letter March 17 to Chairman Jaczko seeking a comprehensive investigation of the NRC’s preparedness for natural disasters. This was coupled with a separate letter from Chairwoman Boxer and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) requesting that the NRC conduct a thorough inspection of the San Onfore and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California.

In the House of Representatives, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) declared his intention to hold a series of hearings on the nuclear disaster in coming weeks. He also reaffirmed his support for legislative efforts aimed at speeding up the federal approval process for building new nuclear reactors.

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRC requesting more information on the seismic safety features that are included in nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States. The letter states “there are eight nuclear reactors located near the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest. There are additionally thirty-one nuclear reactors in the United States that are of the same Mark 1 or Mark 2 design as those currently imperiled in Japan, and twelve of these are located in seismically active zones.”

On March 17, President Obama also ordered a safety review of the nation’s nuclear power plants while seeking to reassure Americans that existing facilities have undergone exhaustive study and have been found to be capable of weathering any number of extreme contingencies. The Obama administration has said it would not stall the licensing process for existing or new plants because of the disaster.

However, a report from the NRC Inspector General (IG) published March 23 found that nearly 30 percent of U.S. nuclear reactor operators are failing to report certain defects in plant equipment. The IG report notes that operators failed to report at least 24 defects in reactor components that could have caused a substantial safety hazard from Dec. 2009 to Sept. 2010, as well as 11 additional defective components between June 2009 and June 2010. The IG recommended that the NRC clarify Part 21 of its Reporting of Defects and Noncompliance.

Since the accident, the nuclear industry, led by the Nuclear Energy Institute, has made a concerted effort to keep Members of Congress informed of the crisis in Japan. The industry has sought to maintain Capitol Hill support for nuclear power by holding numerous briefings with congressional staff and lawmakers in recent weeks.

To view the Boxer/Carper letter, see: http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Majority.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=c4af99b2-802a-23ad-4cf5-b27b7a2ac9d1&Region_id=&Issue_id=

To view the Boxer/Feinstein letter, see: http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Majority.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=c0a594e4-802a-23ad-4c55-7578565a257a&Region_id=&Issue_id=

To view the Markey/Capps letter, see:
http://markey.house.gov/docs/ejm_capps_nrc_letter_03.15.11.pdf

To view the NRC IG report, see:
http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/insp-gen/2011/oig-11-a-08.pdf

APPROPRIATIONS: CONGRESS PUNTS SPENDING NEGOTIATIONS TO APRIL

After the House and Senate passed another short-term continuing resolution (CR), President Obama signed it into law on March 18.  This CR will fund the government through April 8, 2011.
  
The bill will reduce spending this year by $6 billion. The measure includes $2.1 billion in rescissions of funds that have not been used; $2.5 billion in earmark terminations and  $1.1 billion to financial services/general government programs. This includes $276 million for a fund to fight flu pandemics; $225 million in funding for community service employment for older Americans; and $200 million in funding for Internet and technology projects.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 87-13. The no votes came from nine Republicans, three Democrats and one independent: Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Ensign (R-NV), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), James Inhofe (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim Risch (R-ID), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Conservatives mostly opposed the measure because it did not include many of the House-passed CR’s provisions to defund Planned Parenthood and prohibit funding to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). Liberal Senators asserted the measure’s cuts were too deep.

Republican defections were more substantial in the House, where 54 Republicans voted against the measure. This was a sharp increase from the six Republicans who opposed the previous measure, requiring the support of Democrats. The fact that neither the Republican House-passed CR that nor the Democratic alternative, was able to garner the necessary 60 votes for Senate passage earlier this month, highlights the onus that will be on House and Senate leaders to come up with a bipartisan agreement before the April 8 deadline. 

Prominent leaders in both parties have declared they will not support another short-term CR. During the close of House legislative business each week, there is traditionally a colloquy between the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). During a recent exchange, Hoyer declared his vote for the most recent several week extension would be his last. Republican leaders have urged the president to become more involved. The White House has maintained that it will continue to oppose cuts to what it views as critical areas of investment, such as education, research and development.

Both the House and Senate adjourned the full week of March 21. When the chambers return next week, they will have just under two weeks to reach a compromise and avoid a government shutdown.

EPA: HOUSE COMMITTEE APPROVES DEREGULATION BILL, SENATE STALLS SIMILAR EFFORTS

On March 15, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act, a bill to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The House measure was introduced by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) while its Senate companion measure was introduced by Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK).

Committee Democrats continued their contention that Congress should not ignore scientists’ warnings about the consequences of climate change. Republicans countered that they are concerned about the negative impact of the regulations on jobs.

Lacking the vote numbers to stop the committee from passing the legislation, committee Democrats put forward amendments concerning the science on which the rules were based, which is similar to a strategy they initiated at the subcommittee level a week prior.

Ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) offered a measure stating that Congress accepts the EPA’s finding that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote, with 20 Democrats voting in favor, and 31 Republicans opposing the measure.

Another amendment from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) stated that Congress accepts the EPA’s finding that “the scientific evidence is compelling” that man-made emissions “are the root cause of recently observed climate change.” That measure also failed along party lines on a 21-30 vote.

A third measure from Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) stated that Congress accepts EPA’s finding that public health is threatened by climate change. It failed 21-31.

Three moderate Democrats, Reps. Mike Ross (AR), John Barrow (GA) and Jim Matheson (UT), voted in favor of the three Democratic amendments, but supported the final bill.

In the Senate, Democratic leaders repeatedly delayed a vote on the Upton-Inhofe measure, that was brought to the floor by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as an amendment to S. 493, Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Reauthorization Act.

With 47 GOP members in the Senate, Republicans would need to convince 13 Democrats and independents to back the McConnell amendment. Sen. Inhofe maintained, however, that the reason that the amendment never came to a vote was that it does not have lock-step opposition from Senate Democrats.

Senate Democratic leaders are also reviewing their options regarding a potential vote on an alternative measure offered by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), which would delay the EPA rules, but for only two years. Rockefeller has repeatedly noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised him a vote on his measure. However, significant bipartisan support for Rockfeller’s measure also remains somewhat of a hurdle as Sen. Inhofe has declared his opposition to the temporary bill.

The full U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up the Upton/Inhofe bill on the House floor before the Easter recess, which is scheduled to begin for both chambers April 18.

SENATE: ENERGY COMMITTEE LEADERS RELEASE CLEAN ENERGY STANDARD PAPER

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have released a white paper soliciting comments on key questions regarding the potential provisions that would be included in a national Clean Energy Standard (CES).

The document cites President Obama’s State of the Union address as its impetus and intends to narrow some key questions about what consensus provisions, if any, might be included in a national CES. It is intended to “lay out some of the key questions and potential design elements of a CES, in order to solicit input from a broad range of interested parties, to facilitate discussion, and to ascertain whether or not consensus can be achieved.”

The questions cover a wide array of topics, including some that could be met with intense debate, including “to what extent does a CES contribute to the overall climate change policy of the United States.” Others cover broader topics, such as whether there are “specific supporting policy options that should be considered for coal, nuclear, natural gas, renewable energy, and efficiency.”

The white paper, released March 21, poses six basic questions (and 36 clarifying questions) about design elements of a CES. The committee invites all interested parties to respond by Monday, April 11, 2011.

To view the committee white paper, see:
http://energy.senate.gov/public/_files/CESWhitePaper.pdf

For instructions on how to respond to the white paper, visit the committee’s website at:
http://energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=IssueItems.View&IssueItem_ID=7b61e406-3e17-4927-b3f4-d909394d46de

AIR POLLUTION: FIELD HEARING CONVENED TO DISCUSS TEXAS, EPA CLIMATE REGULATIONS

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power convened March 24 in Houston, TX for a field hearing entitled “EPA’s Greenhouse Gas and Clean Air Act Regulations: A Focus on Texas’ Economy, Energy Prices and Jobs.” The hearing was intended to highlight an ongoing debate between the Texas state government and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the regulation of greenhouse gases and several other air quality programs.

The sentiment that EPA’s regulatory efforts would have dire economic consequences for the state of Texas, was echoed by committee Republicans and other state officials who testified, including Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. In his written opening statement, Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield asserted “EPA’s actions in the state of Texas reflect an overreach of federal authority.”

EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Gina McCarthy defended EPA’s decision to reject a Texas flexible permit program and criticized Texas’s refusal to cooperate with EPA in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.  McCarthy asserted the state’s emissions limits are based on industry-supplied estimates that allow a plant to make major modifications without public scrutiny while the EPA requires the use of actual emissions in writing permits.

Texas is the only state to refuse to participate in EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions rules. On Dec. 23, 2010, EPA decided to “disapprove” clean-air rules in Texas due to the state’s refusal to comply with the rules. EPA subsequently issued its own greenhouse gas permits to facilities in the state. The state has criticized the Obama administration for imposing its own rules in Texas, a step that EPA has said is necessary to make sure that the state’s businesses are able to get valid permits.

Bryan Shaw, the head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, vigorously defended the Texas flexible permit program, stating that it has helped the state find innovative methods for enhancing environmental performance. He also noted that “from 2000 to 2009, ozone levels in Texas have decreased by 27 percent statewide, more than any other state in the nation.”

Under the flexible-permit program, the state sets a broad emissions cap for all facilities rather than requiring facility-by-facility emissions limits. Administrator McCarthy contends the program allows emission increases to go unchecked, hinders enforceability and fails to comply with Clean Air Act requirements to protect public health.

The special field hearing was convened at the request of former Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX). The hearing also coincided with the first meeting of a Texas EPA Task Force March 21. The task force was formed by Rep. Barton and 22 other Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation to counter EPA’s regulatory efforts in the state.

To view the hearing testimony, see:
http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8369

AIR POLLUTION: EPA PROPOSES EMISSIONS RULES FOR POWER PLANTS

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 16, proposed the first national standards for emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants from coal-burning power plants. The proposed rules would limit the amount of toxic pollution that can be released into the air for every unit of electricity that is generated. In total, the plan would reduce mercury and acid gas emissions from the U.S. power sector by 91 percent while cutting soot-forming sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution by 53 percent, according to the agency.

The reductions are intended to protect vulnerable Americans from asthma, developmental disorders and other health problems, according to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Jackson’s announcement included the endorsement of the American Lung Association and other prominent health officials to underscore the agency’s assertions that the proposed rules are intended to protect the public health.

According to EPA, power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants, responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the United States. Toxic air pollutants like mercury from coal and oil-fired power plants have been shown to cause neurological damage, including lower IQ, in children exposed during early development. These pollutants can also damage the environment and pollute lakes, streams, and fish. In addition, cutting these toxics also reduces fine particle pollution, which causes premature death, heart disease, and workdays lost to illness and asthma.

While the ruling was lauded by health groups and many Democrats, some Republicans in Congress have raised concerns that the rules could hike electricity prices by raising the cost of burning coal. Some power companies and analysts have also suggested that the toxics rules and other new requirements could cause many power plants to be retired, leading to power shortages, a contention that EPA disputes.

Roughly half of the nation’s more than 400 coal-burning plants have some form of control technology installed, and about a third of states have set their own standards for mercury emissions. However, the proposed rule is the first national standard to require all power plants to come up to the standard of the cleanest of current plants.

The announcement follows a February 2008 court decision that struck down the previous administration’s Clean Air Mercury Rule, a cap-and-trade program that would have forced power plants to cut their mercury emissions by 70 percent. The federal court said the agency hadn’t shown that there would not be health consequences from the decision not to control other metals, such as cadmium and chromium, as well as cancer-causing chemicals such as dioxins and furans.

In October 2009, EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal to be signed by March 16, 2011 and a final rule to be completed by November 2011. The public comment period will last 60 days after appearing in the Federal Register.

For more information, see: http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/

FWS: SETTLEMENT REACHED ON GRAY WOLF DELISTING

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it has reached a settlement with the Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and eight other conservation organizations to temporarily remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho. The settlement provides for the continuation of recovery efforts throughout the rest of the Rocky Mountains region.  

Under the settlement, FWS has agreed to address the delisting of wolves in the region as a distinct population segment, rather than on a state-by-state basis. Interior would maintain federal protections for wolves in portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah where they were removed as part of the disputed 2009 delisting. FWS intends to address the longer term status of wolves in Oregon, Washington, and Utah when it issues a new rule addressing status of wolves across the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

The proposed settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, whose August 2009 decision returned ESA protections to wolves on the grounds that they could not be delisted in Montana and Idaho if they were not also being delisted in Wyoming. The parties requested that the court allow the 2009 delisting to be reinstated in Montana and Idaho on an interim basis, in accordance with approved state management plans, until a full delisting can be completed for the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.

The settlement would also be terminated if Congress enacts its own wolf delisting language. House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID), who inserted language in the House’s continuing resolution to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana and prohibit legal challenges, warned that continued efforts to force species protections through the courts would only intensify legislative efforts on Capitol Hill.

Separate negotiations are ongoing between FWS and the state of Wyoming in an effort to reach agreement on a management plan for wolves in that state. A separate Nov. 2010 federal court decision ordered FWS to come up with a “meaningful” scientific explanation for why Wyoming’s management plan would not maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves. FWS and environmental groups have criticized the Wyoming plan for allowing wolves to be shot on sight in most parts of the state, rather than be treated as trophy game under managed hunts.

For additional information on the settlement see:
http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=238576

-E&E News PM

CURRENT POLICY

Introduced in the House

H.R. 1084, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act of 2011 – Introduced March 15 by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Jared Polis (D-CO), the bill would repeal hydraulic fracturing regulation exemptions under the Safe Drinking Water Act and require disclosure of the types of chemicals injected underground with water during the fracturing process. The bill has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Companion legislation (S. 587) has been introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

H.R. 1126, the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011 – Introduced March 16 by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the bill requires the Department of Interior (DOI) to sell 3.3 million acres of federal lands to the highest bidder. It specifically directs the Interior Secretary to sell federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, previously identified in a 1997 DOI report as suitable for disposal. Companion legislation (S. 635) has been introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and John McCain (R-AZ).

To view the DOI report, see:  http://chaffetz.house.gov/Land%20Disposal%20Report.pdf

Introduced in the Senate

S. 609, the Comprehensive Assessment of Regulations on the Economy (CARE) Act – Introduced March 16 by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE), the bill would instruct the Department of Commerce to review the cumulative energy and economic impacts of regulations proposed or finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency since the start of the Obama administration. The bill has been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.


Sources: ClimateWire, Department of Interior, Environment and Energy Daily, E&E News PM, the Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, the Hill, House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, the Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, POLITICO, the Washington Post

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