Pondering America’s energy future

I went to a New Republic briefing this morning on the future of U.S. energy policy.  What stood out most were the rather impassioned remarks from Senator Kerry (D-MA), who is not generally known for displaying much emotion.  He opened his comments by describing America’s “ostrich-like” approach to energy: “I’ve had it up to here,” he said, motioning to just below his chin.  Every prediction made years ago about this issue is coming true but even faster, said Kerry.  We’ve been receiving countless “postcards from the edge,” he said; warnings and evidence that we are bringing about undesirable changes with our energy demands: pine beetle outbreaks no longer held in check by cold temperatures, lobsters and other marine life threatened by ocean acidification, record breaking heat waves and hurricanes.  And in response to all these warnings, asked Kerry, what have we done?  The answer: “Business as usual.” And while Kerry allowed himself a few partisan digs—for example, we have a growing “flat Earth caucus”—he did quickly move on to more pragmatic arguments that echoed those made by others, such as former Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That is, we should use common sense to move forward on cleaner energy sources because doing so will be good for our health, jobs and the economy, and national security.  Declaring that “we’re our own worst enemy,” Kerry said that he believes “America’s greatness, America’s capacity to lead, is really on the line.” He pointed to the global competition in clean energy, noting that, according to a recent Pew study, China holds first place, leading the way in solar panel and wind turbine production.  Solar panel technology was invented in the U.S. decades ago by Bell Labs, yet China now exports this technology around the globe, selling it also to the U.S.  Germany has recently jumped to second place, bumping the U.S. to third.  While Germany is a far smaller country than the U.S., it has doubled its investment in cle an energy to $42.1 billion, while the U.S. invests $34 billion. Earlier in the briefing, several other speakers offered their views on America’s energy future.  Jacques Besnainou, Chief Executive Officer with the nuclear power services provider AREVA Inc. argued that the U.S. must come to grips with its aging nuclear fleet, the “oldest in the world.”  Doing nothing is not an option, said Besnainou; if no action is taken, these plants will have to be retired in ten years.  Yet another panelist, Christopher Guith, Vice President for Policy at the Institute for 21st Century Energy, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that because natural gas is currently very cheap, the option...

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Policy News: March 25

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. 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...

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ESA Policy News, Oct. 23: Kerry-Graham Op-Ed

ESA’s Policy News for Oct. 23, written by ESA’s Policy Analyst Piper Corp, gives an in-depth look at the New York Times opinion piece written by John Kerry and Lindsey Graham meant to aid in the passage of a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate.  Read more below, and read the Policy News in its entirety here. A joint New York Times op-ed from Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) may pave the way for a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate. The senators use their military service as common ground, focusing on the impact that climate change and energy could have on national security and the economy. The op-ed, which was welcomed by climate legislation advocates and undecided moderates alike, outlines a broad bipartisan agreement aimed at securing the 60 votes necessary for the bill to pass. Graham has not committed his support to the draft bill (S 1733) released by Kerry and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) earlier this month, but has pledged to play a major role in working out a compromise. Observers speculate that the senator’s move could help win the support of three other undecided Republicans: Senators John McCain (AZ), Olympia Snowe (ME) and Susan Collins (ME), all past supporters of cap-and-trade legislation. The Kerry-Graham op-ed suggests a number of key compromises: Nuclear power: The senators propose measures to increase investment in nuclear waste management research and to streamline the permit system, maintaining “vigorous safeguards while allowing utilities to secure financing for more plants.” Several Republicans have indicated that a strong nuclear title could help win their support, although this would likely entail provisions beyond those discussed in the op-ed (many want nuclear projects to receive the same treatment as wind and solar power, including comparable tax cuts and inclusion in a national renewable electricity standard.) Offshore drilling: Graham is pushing for a drilling deal similar to the one proposed by last year’s “Gang of 10.” The bipartisan coalition of senators wanted to allow drilling within 50 miles of the coasts of Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, as well as the gulf coast of Florida. Under the proposal, states would have final say in whether to permit drilling, but would receive a cut of the revenue from any projects they did allow. The op-ed maintained that “any exploration must be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner.” Many wonder if expanded drilling could drive current supporters away. Several senators, including longtime drilling opponents Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), have reiterated their opposition to drilling, although no one has said it would be a deal breaker. Border taxes: The senators said they would consider...

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