Legislation to streamline permitting of energy and other infrastructure projects stirred heightened controversy as nearly 80 Democrats urged House leaders to put the brakes on the proposal, while Senate Republicans introduced a bill to codify the Trump administration's sweeping regulatory revisions.
Seventy-seven House Democrats on Sept. 9 urged House leaders to keep permitting reform out of a continuing resolution to authorize federal spending beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year and prevent a federal-government shutdown.
In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the lawmakers said the "destructive provisions will allow polluting manufacturing and energy development projects to be rushed through before families who are forced to live near them are even aware of the plans."
The letter spotlighted divisions among congressional Democrats about permitting reform. Under the bargain that led to enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed to Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) push for legislation to speed permitting of energy and other infrastructure projects.
The House lawmakers said the provisions would weaken public-health protections. "The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny," the letter says.
Signers include Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.,), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The chairmen of the Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), respectively, did not sign the letter.
Fault lines appeared in the Senate Democratic Caucus. In Sept. 8 floor remarks, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he opposes what he called "this dirty side deal." Quoting a one-page summary of reforms Manchin has proposed, Sanders said the bill "would make it easier for the fossil fuel industry to receive permits to complete some of the dirtiest and most polluting oil and gas projects in America."
Reforms Manchin has proposed include authority for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve interstate transmission projects designated by the Energy secretary; allocation of transmission project costs to benefiting customers; deadlines for completing National Environmental Policy Act project reviews; a one-year deadline for decisions on state certification of projects under the Clean Water Act; and requirements for courts to set deadlines for agencies to act on orders involving energy projects that a court has remanded or for which it has voided a permit.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) on Sept. 13 countered that expanding renewable energy and transmission to carry renewably generated power to load centers would require trade-offs, adding that the energy transition is urgent for addressing climate change.
King said "you can't be in favor of electrification, you can't be in favor of renewable power, you can't be in favor of electric vehicles if you're not in favor of mining the lithium that you need for the batteries. Or covering a lot of farmers' fields with solar panels. You can't have those things without paying a price."
Meanwhile, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) on Sept. 12 introduced legislation to codify Trump administration rules that revised NEPA regulations, redefined "waters of the United States," and narrowed state and tribal authority to certify energy and other infrastructure projects under the Clean Water Act.
The bill also would block the Biden administration's interim social cost of carbon estimates and revise New Source Review permitting for power plant upgrades.
"This legislation is a blueprint for how we can help communities benefit from being able to finally get critical projects across the finish line," Capito, ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said.
In addition, Capito's bill would give states sole authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing and authorize states to develop energy resources on federal lands within their borders.
The Trump administration's NEPA rules were overturned by the Biden administration, which also has proposed unwinding the previous administration's Clean Water Act rule. The Supreme Court on April 6 temporarily resurrected that rule, which a lower court threw out last year.
On waters of the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have reinstated rules that were in place before 2015 and plan to draft new regulations.
Capito's bill is co-sponsored by 46 Republican senators.
State EV Charging Plans Approved
The Transportation Department on Sept. 14 announced approval of 35 state plans to build out an electric-vehicle charging network on 53,000 miles of highways.
The approvals will unlock an initial tranche of more than $900 million in formula grants funded by the 2021 infrastructure law. The grants will come from a $5-billion pot the law designated for formula grants. An additional $2.5 billion was included in the legislation for a discretionary grant program.
Western state deployment plans that received the green light include those submitted by Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Idaho's and Wyoming's plans are still under consideration. Stephanie Pollack, acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said the agency is "reviewing the remaining plans and on track to finish the process by our target date of Sept. 30, if not sooner."
The plan for California, where Department of Energy data shows that 38.7 percent of all EVs in the U.S. are registered, calls for deploying 250,000 public and shared private EV chargers in the state by 2025, including 10,000 fast chargers. The plan forecasts a need for 1.2 million chargers for light-duty vehicles by 2030.
The California Air Resources Board last month approved a rule mandating that by 2035, all new light-duty vehicles sold in the state must be zero-emission (see CEM No. 1707).
Arizona's plan recommends structuring utility rates to encourage charging at off-peak times. "Utility rate plans that incentivize charging during off-peak hours can benefit both the EV owner through reduced costs and Arizona utilities through improved electrical grid utilization," Caryn Potter, Arizona representative for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said.
Over five years, the formula grants will allocate the following estimated totals to Western states: Arizona, $76.5 million; California, just under $383.7 million; Colorado, $56.6 million; Idaho, $29.9 million; Montana, $42.9 million; Nevada, nearly $38 million; New Mexico, almost $38.4 million; Oregon, just under $52.3 million; Utah, $32.3 million; Washington, almost $70.9 million; and Wyoming, just under $26.8 million.
Under federal guidance, charging stations funded by the grants must be placed no more than 50 miles apart along interstate highways. Stations must use interoperable payment methods without membership requirements, according to the guidance.
Floating Offshore Wind Cost-Reduction Goal Set
The Biden administration on Sept. 15 set a goal of cutting floating offshore wind technology costs 70 percent by 2035, to $45/MWh.
The administration also set a target of deploying 15 GW of floating offshore wind in deep waters by 2035.
DOE said it plans to spend nearly $50 million to drive down costs, including a nearly $6.9-million prize for optimizing floating-platform technologies and readying them for commercialization.
The department also said it plans a West Coast transmission analysis to identify "research gaps" on integrating offshore wind power into the grid in California, Oregon and Washington.
Two-thirds of U.S. offshore wind energy potential lie in deep waters off the West Coast, in the Great Lakes and in the Gulf of Maine that would require floating technology for wind development, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study released Sept. 15.
The study estimates that the technical potential of floating wind totals 2,773 GW, while fixed-bottom systems that can be deployed in shallower waters have a potential of 1,476 GW. Off the West Coast, the technical potential is an estimated 297 GW of capacity and nearly 1.1 million GWh of energy. About half the West Coast potential is off Oregon's coast, the study says.
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to auction leases off California later this year, in the Morro Bay and Humboldt leasing areas. BOEM has estimated the two areas could support 4.5 GW of wind development.
Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute and Offshore Operators Committee have signed an agreement to develop safety standards and guidance for offshore wind development, API announced Sept. 14.
Rail Strike Averted
Freight railroad companies and unions on Sept. 15 reached a tentative agreement to avoid a rail strike that energy industry leaders said would have disrupted supply chains, including delivery of fuels, chemicals and manufactured components.
President Joe Biden said the tentative accord "means that our economy can avert the significant damage that any shutdown would have brought."
The agreement is subject to ratification by union members.
The American Petroleum Institute on Sept. 12 urged Congress to step in if necessary to prevent a strike, which would have threatened deliveries of energy products including "coal, ethanol, wind turbine components and crude oil," Frank Macchiarola, API's senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said in a letter to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Commerce Committee.
"A rail strike could create a debilitating logistics chokepoint for the movement of energy and material resources essential to our grid reliability and energy affordability," Rich Nolan, CEO of the National Mining Association, said in a Sept. 12 statement.
The agreement was announced a day before expiration of a cooling-off period Biden imposed July 15. At the same time, he named an emergency board, which recommended a pay raise, bonuses and increased health-care benefits for rail workers. The tentative agreement's 24-percent pay raise over five years follows the board's recommendations.
Biden said top administration officials, including the secretaries of the Transportation, Agriculture and Labor departments, pushed hard for an agreement.
Macchiarola had urged Congress to take one of four options if a strike loomed: extend the cooling-off period, implement the emergency board's recommendations, develop congressional contract recommendations or send the parties to binding arbitration.
Badger-Two Medicine Lease Reinstated
A federal court on Sept. 9 reinstated a 40-year-old oil and natural gas lease and drilling permit in the Badger-Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, ruling that the Interior Department overstepped its authority in 2016 when it canceled the lease.
Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia criticized what he called "an interminable, and insufferable, bureaucratic chess match" involving the 6,200-acre lease held by Solenex, which sued Interior and other federal agencies following the lease cancellation.
The cancellation was upheld in 2020 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which remanded the case to the Interior Department. On remand, Solenex amended its complaint and returned to court.
Leon ruled the lease was valid when it was issued in 1982 and the federal government complied with the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act, which he said were the "only two potential legal bases on which the lease might be invalid." He ruled that Interior went too far in designating the full extent of a 165,588-acre "traditional cultural district" as an "area of potential effects" under the NHPA. In 2002, the U.S. Forest Service designated a 5,000-acre tract around Solenex's lease as an area of potential effects, then expanded the area to cover the entire cultural district in 2013.
"The government did not find that Solenex's proposed drilling would cause any adverse effects recognized by the regulations," Leon wrote.
John Murray, the Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer, called Leon's ruling "just more of the same from people who refuse to consult with the Blackfeet Nation about the industrialization of our last cultural refuge."
The Solenex lease was one of many that had been issued in the Badger-Two Medicine area since the 1980s, but most leaseholders voluntarily gave up their leases or sold them to others who returned them to the federal government.
The Badger-Two Medicine area is a 130,000-acre roadless tract in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, adjacent to Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackfeet reservation.
Senate to Vote on Ratifying Kigali Amendment
The Senate plans to vote the week of Sept. 19 on ratifying a Montreal Protocol treaty amendment mandating an 85-percent phasedown in production and use of hydrofluorocarbons.
Ratifying the Kigali amendment, named after the Rwandan capital city where it was negotiated in 2016, would allow U.S. HVAC and refrigeration manufacturers to gain access to markets in countries that have previously ratified it, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Sept. 15. Countries that have ratified the amendment total 137, he noted.
The amendment would align with the U.S. phasedown schedule codified into federal law in 2020 and implemented by an EPA rule finalized this year.
Ratification of the Kigali amendment has broad backing from environmental and industry organizations, including the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute.
HFCs, used as refrigerants, were introduced to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, but have powerful heat-trapping properties.
Senators Demand IG Probe in Battery Report
Two senators on Sept. 14 asked DOE's inspector general to investigate a reported transfer of $15 million in vanadium redox flow battery technology to China.
National Public Radio and Northwest News Network on Aug. 3 reported that DOE transferred the technology, developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to China in 2017 as part of a sublicense and in 2021 as part of a license transfer.
In a letter to DOE Inspector General Teri Donaldson, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said "these transfers occurred while several U.S. companies, according to the NPR report, simultaneously sought the same license from DOE." The report mentioned Forever Energy of Bellevue, Washington, as one of the companies that sought a license.
The letter says that as a result of the reported transfer, "Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd. has become the global leader in the manufacture of vanadium redox flow batteries."
"If the facts in the NPR report are accurate, we are concerned that this is an overt dereliction of duty by DOE, and that this case may be emblematic of a department that routinely and flippantly permits government-funded technology to be transferred to China," Barrasso and Ernst told Donaldson.
Barrasso is ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Report Warns About Crypto Energy Use
Energy use associated with validating cryptocurrency transactions could hinder U.S. efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, according to a White House report released Sept. 9.
Energy use by cryptocurrency operations accounts for 0.9 to 1.7 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption, equivalent to all residential lighting in the country, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report says.
Cryptocurrency activities result in emissions of up to 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to all CO2 emissions from diesel fuel consumed by U.S. railroad trains, the report says.
The operations consume energy by powering computers used for "mining," the solving of complex mathematical puzzles to validate transactions over a distributed ledger. Bitcoin and ethereum, which together account for more than 60 percent of cryptocurrency asset market capitalization, use the "proof of work" method for mining, the report says, adding, "The [proof of work] mechanism is designed to require more computing power as more entities attempt to validate transactions for coin rewards, and this feature helps disincentivize malicious actors from attacking the network."
Cryptocurrency mining's energy consumption has spurred calls for using "proof of stake," a less energy-intensive validation method, the report says.
Future growth of cryptocurrency energy use is uncertain, the report says. "Electricity usage can change as crypto-asset miners ramp their activities up or down in response to market value fluctuations, and as they adopt new equipment and technologies."
The report calls on federal agencies to provide technical assistance and set environmental performance standards covering energy intensity, water consumption, noise control and use of carbon-free generation to power cryptocurrency mining.
"Should these measures prove ineffective at reducing impacts, the administration should explore executive actions, and Congress might consider legislation, to limit or eliminate the use of high energy-intensity consensus mechanisms for crypto-asset mining," the report says.
In addition, the report calls on DOE, FERC, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and NERC regional entities to conduct reliability assessments of current and projected mining operations. If the assessments spotlight reliability risks tied to mining, new reliability standards should be considered, the report says.
BOEM Reinstates Gulf of Mexico Bids
The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Sept. 14 reinstated Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease sale bids, a move mandated by the Inflation Reduction Act.
BOEM reinstated 307 of the highest valid bids from lease sale 257, totaling more than $189 million. The sale, covering 1.7 million acres, was held in November 2021, but the bids were thrown out by a federal court in February.
Tighter Offshore Safety Rules Proposed
The Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Sept. 12 proposed tightening the 2019 well-control rule.
The proposed revisions would require blowout-preventer systems to be able to close and seal a wellbore to the well's kick-tolerance design at all times. In addition, under the proposal, remotely operated vehicles would have to be capable of opening and closing shear rams on blowout preventers.
The rule would also require direct submission of failure data to BSEE rather than designated third parties; failure analysis to start within 90 instead of 120 days; and sending of test results to BSEE within 72 hours of test completion if the agency is unable to witness testing.
White House Office to Oversee IRA Implementation
Biden on Sept. 12 established a White House Office on Clean Energy Innovation and Implementation to oversee the carrying out of the Inflation Reduction Act's energy and climate provisions.
In an executive order, Biden also established a National Climate Task Force, to be led by the head of the new White House office and the national climate advisor.
Biden named John Podesta to head the innovation office. Podesta previously worked as a counselor to President Barack Obama and was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration.
Federal Reserve Eyes Climate Guidance
The Federal Reserve is working with other banking regulators to provide large banks with guidance on managing climate-related financial risks, a top Fed official said Sept. 7.
Michael Barr, vice chairman for supervision, said the Fed is working with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on guidance for large banks "on how we expect them to identify, measure, monitor and manage the financial risks of climate change."
Barr said that in 2023, "we plan to launch a pilot micro-prudential scenario analysis exercise to better assess the long-term, climate-related financial risks facing the largest institutions."
Barr, who took office on July 19, laid out the Fed's plans in a speech to the Brookings Institution.
External Reviews of Nuclear Demo Projects Sought
The Department of Energy should institutionalize external independent reviews of three Western nuclear demonstration projects, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Sept. 15.
"Consistently applying project management practices, such as external independent project reviews at critical decision points, could result in stronger federal oversight and improved project performance," the report says.
The Energy Department said it concurred with GAO's recommendations.
DOE has awarded more than $4.5 billion to three projects demonstrating advanced nuclear technologies. The Carbon Free Power Project, owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, received almost $1.4 billion to demonstrate Portland-based NuScale's small modular light-water reactor technology at a plant to be built at Idaho National Laboratory.
Bellevue, Washington-based TerraPower received nearly $2 billion for demonstrating its Natrium reactor, a sodium-cooled fast reactor design, at a plant to be developed at the Kemmerer, Wyoming site of the coal-fired Naughton plant, which is due to close permanently in 2025.
X-energy was awarded more than $1.2 billion for developing a plant powered by an Xe-100 pebble-bed reactor in partnership with Energy Northwest and Public Utility District No. 2 of Grant County, Washington.
DOE Report Spotlights Coal-to-Nuclear Issues
Eighty percent of retired and operating coal-fired power plants could host advanced nuclear reactors, according to a DOE report released Sept. 13.
Transitioning 315 sites with the "basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable" for hosting advanced nuclear plants would allow for developing 263.3 GW of nuclear capacity, the report says.
The report, prepared by the Idaho, Argonne and Oak Ridge national laboratories, said coal-to-nuclear projects "appear to perform better than stand-alone, greenfield nuclear projects." In addition, the report said such transitions "may be an economic boost for disadvantaged communities."
Coal-to-nuclear projects could reuse grid connections and office buildings, along with access to water supplies, according to the report. It notes, however, that reusing some steam-cycle components would lead to "major compatibility and licensing challenges."
The study examined 157 sites of retired coal plants, including 29 in the West and Southwest. Of the 157 sites, 125, including 24 in the West and Southwest, were reported to be "amenable" for a "backfit" of an advanced nuclear plant within a half-mile radius of the retired plant center. For operating plant sites, 190 of 237 were considered "amenable" for an advanced nuclear plant within a half-mile radius, including 58 in the West and Southwest.
The report cautions that the study "is hypothetical for analysis purposes only."