Senate Should Reject Trump’s Coal-Friendly Energy Commission Nominee
By Elliott Negin
The steady parade of unqualified, ideologically driven appointees for key Trump administration positions has resumed now that things in Washington have settled down after the mid-term elections. Last week, Trump tapped Matthew G. Whitaker to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to confirm attorney Bernard McNamee to fill a vacancy at the five-member, presidentially appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a relatively obscure—but critically important—independent agency that oversees interstate power lines and pipelines.
Trump presumably picked McNamee to put the administration's pro-fossil-fuel spin on a number of key decisions FERC will make in the coming months, especially one that would bail out uneconomic coal plants. If that happens, Americans will be saddled with higher electric bills, more toxic air pollution and more heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. The commission also will be considering rules that would encourage energy storage, rooftop solar installations and remotely located renewable sources.
McNamee would replace Robert Powelson, a former utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator who left the commission in August after less than a year. One of the three Republicans on the commission, Powelson maintains that FERC should be insulated from political pressure. "I don't make any decision based on the fact that I'm a lifelong Republican," he told Energywire. "I have a mean independent streak in me."
McNamee, who has no utility sector experience, is all about partisan politics. He worked for Republican attorneys general in Virginia and Texas and advised Republican Sens. George Allen and Ted Cruz before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2017 as deputy general counsel for energy policy.
Last February, he left DOE to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by a rogues gallery of polluters, including Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. It's the same outfit that produced Trump's unqualified—and rejected—nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.
While at TPPF, McNamee penned a paean to his favorite energy source for The Hill, a political trade publication, titled "This Earth Day, let's accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs." "We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health," his April 17 column read. "The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed…." Renewable energy sources, he added, cannot replace fossil fuels, but not to worry, "America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal."
McNamee rejoined DOE in June as the executive director of the agency's policy office. Before and after his brief stint at TPPF, he promoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry's proposal to require regional transmission operators to buy electricity from power plants that can store a 90-day fuel supply on site, ostensibly to strengthen electricity-grid resiliency. The plan, which would prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been struggling to compete on the open market with cheaper natural gas and renewables, would cost ratepayers an estimated $17 billion to $35 billion annually.
At Trump's behest, Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to issue grid resiliency rules to protect failing coal and nuclear plants. FERC rejected the request, concluding that DOE did not provide any evidence that coal and nuclear plant retirements would undermine grid reliability. An analysis by Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM of the impact of closing at-risk plants in its region also found no threat to the grid.
Besides trying to reverse FERC's coal- and nuclear-power bailout decision, McNamee could do lasting damage in other ways. For example, the commission is currently not required to consider the impact of climate change when making electricity policy decisions, but the two Democratic commissioners think the "social cost of carbon"—the financial damage caused by carbon pollution—should be incorporated in environmental reviews for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Likewise, the commission will be deliberating over whether it should eliminate barriers to electric energy storage, make it easier for solar panel owners to sell their excess power back to electric utilities, and recommend federal incentives for more transmission-line construction, which would enable remotely sited wind and solar projects to compete with natural gas. Given McNamee's biases, it is unlikely he would support any of those initiatives.
This week's confirmation hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is no stranger to the FERC confirmation drill and quite knowledgeable about the commission's mandate. In her opening statement during a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing in 2013, Murkowski made a case for rejecting an Obama nominee that could be easily applied to McNamee.
"FERC is independent by law and by design. It is clearly distinct from executive agencies that carry out policy directives from the White House…," she explained. "It is critically important for us to enable the agency—and its professional nonpartisan employees who report to the chairman as their CEO—to maintain its strong culture as an expert agency free of undue political influence."
Murkowski should hew to that line on Thursday—and the Senate should reject the McNamee nomination.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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