Energy & Environment

The U.S. needs a proactive approach to wildfire

This year’s wildfire season has set records for being one of the most catastrophic. If it is setting a precedent for what is to come, we’re all in trouble.
 
Texas is having the worst fire season on record. Since last November, more than 7,600 homes and other buildings and more than 3.8 million acres have been destroyed, which is half a million more acres than burned total in the U.S. last year. And Texans aren’t alone in their suffering, as 2011 has seen almost 8.4 million acres burn across the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the area in the West seared by fire has been six times greater than in the two preceding decades.
 
Now is the time, with the end of wildfire season within sight and with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees submitting their FY12 recommendations last week, to focus on how devastation like this can be avoided in the future. These fires have national economic consequences and to prevent wildfires, we as a nation must invest in forest health and in strategies to decrease the risk of future fires. We need a comprehensive approach to managing forests, including sufficiently funding all aspects of wildfires: firefighting and preventative measures.

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The US needs a proactive approach to wildfire

This year’s wildfire season has set records for being one of the most catastrophic. If it is setting a precedent for what is to come, we’re all in trouble.
 
Texas is having the worst fire season on record. Since last November, more than 7,600 homes and other buildings and more than 3.8 million acres have been destroyed, which is half a million more acres than burned total in the U.S. last year. And Texans aren’t alone in their suffering, as 2011 has seen almost 8.4 million acres burn across the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the area in the West seared by fire has been six times greater than in the two preceding decades.
 
Now is the time, with the end of wildfire season within sight and with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees submitting their FY12 recommendations last week, to focus on how devastation like this can be avoided in the future. These fires have national economic consequences and to prevent wildfires, we as a nation must invest in forest health and in strategies to decrease the risk of future fires. We need a comprehensive approach to managing forests, including sufficiently funding all aspects of wildfires: firefighting and preventative measures.

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End subsidies to fossil fuel companies

As debate rages in Washington over how to cut the deficit there are growing calls for Congress to end handouts to fossil fuel companies. Last week, we joined leaders of 50 other national and state organizations in sending a letter to the Super Committee calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. We have now been joined by 38 Members of the House of Representatives all of who have sent a similar letter to the committee. The message from both civil society and these Members of Congress could not be more clear -- eliminating these wasteful subsidies could reduce the national debt by $122 billion over ten years while bettering the environment and public health.
 
The Committee should start by eliminating all the subsidies in the federal tax code totaling over $47 billion for fossil fuel companies that the President has targeted for elimination. Eliminating the tax credit for refineries seeking to process dirty tar sands oil could save an additional $1.3 billion.
 
Another example of a completely unnecessary giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is royalty-free leases on public lands. There is simply no excuse for our government to give away public resources for free, especially when private companies are making billions of dollars in profits off of them. Ending royalty-free oil and gas leases would save taxpayers $9.5 billion over ten years.

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Why trashing the EPA won't work in the 2012 presidential election

Every election has its villain, typically a movement, person or institution that becomes a whipping post for politicians eager to energize political campaign contributors or voters … and sometimes both.

But in the increasingly polarized world of American politics, the same target for opprobrium that works so well in the early going of a presidential season hard-core party regulars can backfire spectacularly as election day draws nearer.  This happens because candidates must reach beyond their base to appeal to independents and members of the other party who can be persuaded to switch sides.

Our polling indicates that one such “double-edge sword” issue already has surfaced in the 2012 election.   While some presidential candidates are attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and generally anything that is “green,” it is increasingly apparent that there is a huge divide among voters that will sharply limit the effectiveness of this tactic.

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Focus on the Solyndra default distracts from the benefits of solar

There is a segment of the U.S. economy that employs more than 100,000 people – and during the past year, employment in that segment grew by more than 6.8 percent.
 
Compare that to the 0.7 percent growth in the economy as a whole and this is clearly a bright spot in the still-struggling American economy.
 
That bright spot is the U.S. solar industry. And despite some well-publicized glitches, solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation – and poised to continue growing and supplying more clean power to millions of Americans.
 
The recent grilling of Solyndra executives before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was a headline-making affair – but it did little to address the real issue: the need to curb America’s dangerous addiction to foreign oil while investing in domestic energy.
 

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Energy efficiency programs have real value

The tension between protecting the environment and stimulating the economy is boiling over today in Washington.

The most recent flashpoint is over claims that new interstate air pollution standards for the utility sector are overly burdensome, and could negatively impact the economy. This comes on the heels of the recent, hotly contested move by the Obama Administration to table two other regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would have sought to reduce harmful ozone and greenhouse gas emissions; in doing so, the Administration cited concerns that the regulations could lead to billions in lost costs for businesses.

But pitting environmental and public health protections against economic growth is a false choice. As Congress and the Administration look for more effective ways to balance these two imperatives, they should prioritize - not punish - America's cleanest, most affordable energy resource: energy efficiency.

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Rhetoric or reality at FERC


In June, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said all the right things about who will pick up the $160 billion tab to federalize America’s electricity grid. “Costs must be allocated at least roughly commensurate with estimated benefits; those that receive no benefits should not be allocated costs,” FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff stated when the Commission issued its Order 1000 on transmission planning and cost allocation.


For those worried about FERC forcing consumers in some states to subsidize long-distance transmission lines to nowhere, when cheaper and green sources of power were available closer to home, Wellinghoff’s statement was welcome news.


Of course, the proof is in the pudding. At FERC’s monthly meeting on October 20, we will learn whether “beneficiary pays” serves as the guiding principle of transmission policy or is just empty rhetoric. For the first time since FERC enunciated its transmission policy, the commission will demonstrate how Order 1000 will be implemented.



Unfortunately, there is little reason for optimism. Almost nothing in the commission’s 620-page transmission order supports FERC’s oratory. Order 1000 is riddled with major problems, creates uncertainty about its implementation, and gives too much power to regional organizations. The Commission intends to establish by regulatory fiat a national clean energy policy never endorsed by Congress and wants hard-pressed industries and homeowners to pay a surtax on their utility bills to finance it.


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Stop, collaborate, and listen

The seasons may change, but the continued attention that natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, (more popularly known as fracking,) receives does not. This summer saw a lot of activity associated with fracking.An eminent committee was assembled by DOE Secretary Chu to weigh in on actions the industry and federal agencies should implement, New York provided guidelines of where fracking should and shouldn’t be done, New Jersey first attempted to permanently ban and then issued a one-year moratorium on fracking, Texas required disclosure of fracking fluids, and NGOs continue to apply pressure to ensure that safeguards are put into place.

Perhaps most alarming for the natural gas industry is a growing group of landowners who are second guessing their participation in the process, either because they feel that they are not being sufficiently compensated or because they are concerned about potential environmental impacts.
The industry has demonstrated a commitment to address some of the key concerns raised by fracking, including fracking fluids’ potential impact on drinking water during injection and disposal.

As the New York Times recently noted, companies are affirming the practical benefits of addressing these concerns head on. Rebecca Thingelstad, an engineer from oil and gas company Anadarko, emphasized the financial benefits beyond building goodwill: ”If everyone's comfortable with it, you can get your permits through faster.”


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Congress should vote to protect renewable coal ash

This week the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected President Obama’s jobs bill. But there is another jobs bill on the horizon, and this one can pass the Senate.

I authored H.R. 2273 to establish a state-based regulatory framework for the disposal and management of coal ash and it is set to hit the House floor today. It will improve the economy and strengthen public health, and unlike most things in Washington these days, is genuinely bipartisan.

Coal ash is an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. Much of it is recycled to make concrete and other building materials more durable and less water-intensive, which in turn benefits the environment.

Recently, President Obama’s EPA has proposed regulating it as a hazardous material, but two EPA studies under the Clinton administration found that coal ash was not hazardous. Another study found ruling coal as a hazardous material could eliminate up to 316,000 jobs over the next 20 years. And already, the stigma the EPA has created surrounding coal ash’s use has had a chilling effect on the various industries that recycle it.

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Why Keystone XL is not in the national interest

Pressure is building on the Obama administration to reach a final decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department seems to be siding with backers of the project. The favorable environmental impact statement it has just released does not wholly dispel the reservations of the EPA and private environmental groups, but it carries political weight. Still, before construction can begin, the pipeline needs a finding that it is in the national interest. It is not.
 
Keystone XL, if built, would carry bitumen from Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Its backers claim it will enhance national security without harm to the environment and create jobs in the process. Those claims are dubious.
 
Let’s begin with security. Granted, the U.S. addiction to imported oil, much of it from countries that are unfriendly, undemocratic, or both, does create security threats. One comes from the periodic spikes in world oil prices that disrupt our economy. The Libyan conflict, which pushed oil prices over $100 a barrel last spring, helping to stall the recovery, is a case in point. A second security threat lies in tendency of oil wealth to find its way to groups that are hostile to the United States and its allies. Backers claim that a pipeline that assures a steady flow of oil from a stable, nearby country would be better than continued reliance on distant, often uncertain sources.

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