One of the Most Important Agencies You've Never Heard of Is Being Taken Over by Trump
By Kim Smaczniak
Most Americans probably don't know that an independent—and up to now nonpartisan—government agency has played a key role in our nation's transition to cleaner energy technologies. Under the radar and hidden beneath a layer of technical jargon, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has shepherded changes to electricity market rules that have gradually allowed the superior economics of clean energy technologies to out-compete clunky, old fossil fueled power plants. And it has done this for decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Now the Trump administration is poised to tip FERC's balance by appointing a fossil fuel advocate as one of five commissioners—putting all that bipartisan clean energy progress under threat. However, because few people have heard of the important work done by this small, technocratic agency, this potential appointment could move forward without much opposition. This has to change. A healthy, livable climate depends on it.
Bernard McNamee is the Trump administration's pick to fill Robert Powelson's recently vacated seat on FERC. McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Sec. Rick Perry's failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries.
His resume reads like a who's who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.
McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded "Life: Powered," a project launched by the group in 2015 "to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan," according to TPPF's 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how "the responsible use of America's abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition."
By all accounts, he's decidedly political and unabashedly an advocate for dirty energy.
Up to this juncture, FERC's work to keep the grid running at fair rates hasn't been a "red" or "blue" issue. Although FERC's five commissioners are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, no more than three of its commissioners may belong to the same political party in order to maintain its tradition of careful bipartisanship. Under this bipartisan approach, clean energy progress has marched forward: Year after year, regional grids have hit higher and higher proportions of renewable energy. FERC has eliminated barriers to new energy technologies whether chaired by a "D" or an "R." Even under the initial slate of Trump appointees, FERC unanimously rejected the Trump coal bailout.
That bipartisan tradition now appears to be under threat.
If McNamee were confirmed as a FERC commissioner, Trump would gain a decisive vote on a commission that's currently split 2-2. With critical matters looming ahead on FERC's agenda, this is dangerous. As executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, McNamee played a central role in an attempt to undermine wholesale energy markets for the benefit of the coal industry – an attempt FERC has blocked to date.
FERC recently issued a ruling that has the potential to undercut state policies that level the playing field for renewable resources. PJM Interconnection runs the nation's largest regional grid, which stretches from Illinois to New Jersey and down to North Carolina. FERC's ruling would effectively block state-supported renewables from participating in one of PJM's electricity markets. The ruling is poorly conceived, and Earthjustice is working to reverse it. FERC could right its own course with a pending case that provides another way for the impacted renewables to receive payment for their services. Without McNamee, FERC's two Democratic commissioners could potentially negotiate a compromise solution that respects state renewable energy programs. However, with McNamee, FERC's fellow Republican commissioners could be swayed toward a hardline position and produce a 3-2 pro-fossil fuel vote.
FERC also is considering a request from a gas-fired power plant in California that could have dangerous implications for the state's recent historic decision to achieve 100 percent clean energy electricity by 2045.
It just so happens that this gas-fired plant, La Paloma in Kern County, was purchased last year by Daniel Andrew Beal, a large donor to Trump's presidential bid who also served as a campaign adviser. La Paloma is asking FERC to order California to put a mandatory capacity market into place—which would explicitly prevent renewable energy sources supported by state policies from earning money in the market. The results would be devastating for a state that has been a pioneer in sourcing its electricity from clean energy. If McNamee were confirmed, it is far more likely that Beal will get his way.
Together with our advocacy partners, Earthjustice is paying close attention to these and other matters that could be threatened by a McNamee confirmation. We will continue to fight to keep politics from getting in the way of progress at FERC. But we need your help. Call your senators today and ask them to oppose the appointment of Bernard McNamee to FERC. Our clean energy future is at stake.
Kim Smaczniak is a staff attorney with the Clean Energy Program. She helps shape legal strategies to ensure a fair playing field for clean energy in federally-regulated electricity markets. Kim is based in Washington, DC.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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