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Archive for March, 2011

Americans tend to think of climate change as a ‘down the road’ future phenomenon. But the fact of the matter is that although the world isn’t coming to an end tomorrow, we are being impacted by climate change, and much more than we may think.  We may feel like we don’t know anyone dealing with the repercussions of climate change, but the effects are closer than we think. In fact, think of that cattle ranch down the road, it’s probably dealing with the effects of climate change, like drought, and extreme heat waves, and most of us don’t even know it.

Climate change can affect livestock, especially here in Texas, aka the cattle country.  This occurs principally through variations in appetite, and distribution in energy between maintenance and growth.  The potential for disease incidence becomes increased as well. Does this become worth the cost for those who raise cattle? Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that it is not.

Cattle during a roundup session

My family has owned a working cattle ranch for as long as I can remember.  The cattle were left to openly graze through the pastures and wander about the ranch, to the fishing pond and beyond.  I can remember countless times driving in only to be stopped by a cow standing blatantly in the middle of the road munching on some mesquite.  A few months ago, the decision was made to slowly get rid of the cattle on the ranch.  Why you ask? For one, the expense it costs to maintain such a production is becoming more than the profit.  The cattle are eating everything in sight, not allowing the wild game to acquire enough to eat to reach their full mass potential.  This essentially decreases the amount of hunting leases the ranch receives, since the game isn’t at its full potential, size wise.  As long as the cows continue to eat, they’ll also continue to erode everything in sight, especially since they’ve been grazing for so long out in the pastures.  And specifically speaking of extreme heat waves, I can remember a few times in my lifetime when we’ve had cows die right in the pastures as a result of the brutal Texas heat.  That seems to be a pretty clear indicator of the serious catastrophic risks that the effects of warming have on the hard-working cattle ranchers. (more…)

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HB 2184BAD

by Lewis (more…)

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The emblem of the American Recovery and Reinve...

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), or "the stimulus" provided funds for a broad range of priorities, but did Texas spend the money wisely?

Public Citizen has been a member of a coalition that has attempted to bring more sunshine, more transparency, and more good government to the implementation on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as “The Stimulus.” Two years since its passage much of the funding appropriated has been spent, but there is still more to do. Our groups yesterday released a report “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over: The Texas Legislature and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act” which can be found at http://www.txstimulus.com.

It is worth noting that the txstimulus.com website was originally used by a select committee in the Texas Legislature charged with keeping an eye on how Texas spent ARRA funds.  Bee Moorhead in an interview with the Texas Tribune explained what happened to the website and all of that information the committee had been collecting:

During his days as select committee chairman, (Jim) Dunnam (chair of the select committee) set up a website — txstimulus.com — to provide documents and information on stimulus spending, culled from the committee’s hearings and correspondence with the Texas congressional delegation. In March, the domain, which was registered in Dunnam’s name, lapsed, taking all the information it contained therein.

Enter Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith organization, and the new owner of txstimulus.com. “Legislative committees can use the internet really effectively, and there are great examples of committees doing that this year,” said Moorhead, citing efforts of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, “but those websites contain government information, and they can’t just be handled like some individual’s blog.”

The coalition also released a set of recommendations to help Texas improve its transparency. #4 is my personal favorite and one of my pet issues, but all are important. These recommendations are explored more in depth in the press release accompanying this post, which is available in full after the jump.

1. Draw down the unemployment dollars.

2. Keep a legislative eye on the game till it’s over.

3. Move the low-income weatherization program from TDHCA to SECO.

4. Modernize Texas’ Freedom of Information Act.

5. Make the Texas Fusion Center’s budget transparent.

6. Require more project-specific information on TxDOT projects.

7. Be ready for more funding.

8. Target ARRA energy efficiency dollars to areas of greatest need.

9. Build on ARRA health infrastructure investment.

10. Protect the integrity of all state government-related websites.

Included in our report are in-depth analysis of spending on transportation, weatherization, energy efficiency, health care, and others. I highly recommend you read this important piece of research, or at least bookmark it for future reference.  Please to enjoy.

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NRG has announced that they will back off of additional development of STP reactors 3 & 4, while awaiting federal guidance regarding safety issues resulting from the nuclear disaster in Japan. The reactor site in Bay City, Texas, is 100 miles from Houston.
Reactor safety has long been a concern of Public Citizen and the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. The disaster in Japan illustrates the danger of fires and explosions and of putting many nuclear reactors in the same location.  The SEED Coalition raised these concerns in legal opposition to the licensing of two additional South Texas Project reactors and anticipate an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing this Fall. This case is likely to set important precedent as it will be the first in the nation to examine these safety issues in new reactor licenses.
The risks of nuclear power are real and apply to U.S. reactors as well as those in Japan. At the South Texas site, a hurricane could knock out power and flood diesel generators, leading to a loss of coolant and potentially a meltdown.  Human error or technological problems can lead to accident scenarios.  Drought conditions are expected to worsen so low river flows could threaten the ability to cool existing reactors. Hopefully, we’ll never see a terrorist attack, but that is a possibility too. We believe it is time to use safer, more affordable ways to generate electricity.
SEED Coalition recently raised safety issues in opposition to the re-licensing of reactors 1 and 2, which are set to retire in 2027 and 2028. The NRC is considering allowing them to operate another 20 years past their originally intended lifespan. Reactors become more risky as they age, and we do not believe another 20 years of operation is safe. We must prevent a serious accident from happening here.
There have been plenty of problems with the existing reactors, both of which were shut down for over a year in the 1993-94 timeframe due to problems with the auxiliary feedwater pumps and diesel generators. Houston Lighting and Power was fined $500,000 for safety violations.
Click here for a summary of historical problems at the site.
The public can comment on STP re-licensing until April 1st.  Click here for information on how to comment.

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The Energy and Power Subcommittee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing this Thursday on the clash between Texas officials and the EPA at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.  Click here for more information.

A coalition called the Texas EPA Task Force, made up of federal and state Republican officials, is backing proposed federal legislation that would stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. They also strongly disagree with a December EPA ruling that said Texas’ flexible permitting program for air emissions is not in compliance with the act.  They will be at the hearing in force to push their agenda.

Environmentalists response to the Texas EPA Task Force is that for 40 years the EPA has been working to make sure Texans have cleaner air and better health, and call for the citizens of Texas to not let industry insiders and their friends in Congress get in the way.

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How close do you live to a nuclear plant? I got curious and this is what I found out.

If a crisis at a nuclear reactor happened in the U.S., could you be living in a danger zone? In a 10-mile radius, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the air could be unsafe to breathe in the event of a major catastrophe. In 50 miles, food and water supplies may be unsafe.  Click here to go to CNN.Money’s plant locator.

Don’t forget that radioactive particles can be carried on the wind and many of us in Texas know how far the wind can carry things - for example, every year, when we start coughing each time we walk outside, when Mexico is burning fields.

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This is a reprint of an article that ran in the Houston Chronicle submitted by Air Alliance Houston, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the No Coal Coalition, Public Citizen and Greenpeace.

Here’s the situation: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has “go” or “no-go” decision- making power on a project that could greatly impact all Houston area residents and future generations.

Here’s the ask: In addition to denying a permit for the proposed White Stallion coal plant, USACE Chief Fred Anthamatten and Galveston District Commander Col. Christopher Sallese are urgently encouraged to call for an Environmental Impact Statement that would lend transparency to a currently deficient process. Likewise, the Corps should also be receiving similar requests for this Environmental Impact Statement from Houston Mayor Annise Parker, City Council members and other concerned citizens as decisions made today could have a profound impact on lives tomorrow. We urge our local elected officials to write Anthamatten and Sallese requesting such a study.

For those not familiar with the situation, if White Stallion gets approved, it could dramatically increase smog levels in the Houston-Galveston-Beaumont region, which is already in “nonattainment” of federal ozone standards.

In 2008, White Stallion owners filed for an air pollution permit that ultimately attracted opposition from Matagorda County local citizens, county officials and clean air advocates. Even the administrative law judges reviewing the application found flaws and recommended permit denial. Ignoring the recommendations, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) gave its approval late last year, spurring our local Houston-Galveston Area Council to write a letter asking for assurances that the proposed plant wouldn’t affect our region.

As if that wasn’t enough, new facts have come to light calling previous points into question. Six days after TCEQ gave its approval, White Stallion filed a new and different site plan for the same power plant in support of its permit application to the Corps. This new site plan changes the location of 73 of the 84 pollutant emissions points used in the air dispersion modeling upon which the final TCEQ order was based.

The plant predicts emissions of 10 million tons of carbon dioxide, 4,955 tons of sulfur dioxide, 4,047 tons of nitrogen oxide, 1,792 tons of particulate matter and 96 pounds of mercury every single year. But now no one — not the state, not the Corps and certainly not the residents – knows specifically where that pollution would be coming from.

With this latest development, Matagorda County and Houston-Galveston-Beaumont residents and industries are entitled to new hearings on the matter as well as an Environmental Impact Statement. These changes should require White Stallion to demonstrate that its proposed plant will not undo years of efforts by local industry and residents to clean up our air. Indeed, these changes should require White Stallion to go back to square one.

Think about it. The Matagorda County-based plant may not be in our backyards, but it’s awfully close – just 20 miles outside our nonattainment area. That’s close enough to undo years of efforts to clean up Houston air. Why not, at the very least, require White Stallion to do its homework?

This is a critical opportunity for Anthamatten and Sallese to do the right thing and show citizens that our federal processes are open and transparent.

They have it within their power to call for an Environmental Impact Statement examining what these changes mean for the Houston area, and we respectfully implore them to do so.

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Texas coal-burning power plants – especially those fueled by lignite – could face closures under proposed national standards for coal emissions of mercury and other toxins unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The standards, which are far tougher than the electric power industry had anticipated, could lead to the shuttering of several coal units in Texas which are currently out of compliance with the new rules.  Can you say “GRANDFATHERED?”

A key issue centers on the “Mercury and Air Toxics Rule,” which the EPA estimates would reduce mercury from power plants by 91 percent, several existing Texas power plants emit so much mercury that a retrofit would not be economically feasible.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, estimated that at least 11 coal units in Texas would likely close if the ruling stands. Retrofitting lignite plants, in particular, could cost between $800 million to $1.2 billion each.

Specifically we believe that Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake plants owned by Luminant in East Texas would be on the target list, along with units at American Electric Power, Texas-New Mexico Power and the San Miguel plant outside San Antonio.

NRG Energy Inc., a Houston-based power company, said it’s engaged in a company-wide program to reduce their environmental impact across their existing fleet, coupled with investments in clean and renewable technologies including solar, wind, and the electric vehicle infrastructure. 

In this instance they did not mention their nuclear program or their current license application to expand the South Texas Plant from two units to four units.  But what PR person would given what is happening in Japan?

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Even as the Japanese attempt increasingly frantic tactics to cool an overheated nuclear complex:  

  • U.S. officials warned the situation is deteriorating and challenged the Japanese government’s assessment of the radiation risks telling U.S. civilians and military personnel to stay at least 50 miles from the facility, in contrast to the 12-mile evacuation zone set by Japan.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that the U.S. believed the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex was even graver than Japanese officials had outlined in public; and
  • U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told those same lawmakers that he believed a “partial meltdown” had occurred at the Japanese nuclear power plant and that the accident was “more serious” than the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program affirmed that it will continue to finance nuclear projects in the United States during a presentation he made today at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.

Mr. Silver’s remarks followed Congressional testimony in Washington by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the same testimony that cautioned the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was more serious than Japanese officials were saying,  Dr. Chu said that the Obama administration continued to support nuclear energy, noting the president had requested that $36 billion be appropriated for the nuclear loan guarantee program.

The loan guarantee program has come under fire from all sides, with Congressional Republicans, questioning whether the department has spent its money wisely and moving to cut funding for the $71 billion program.

An audit released last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general found that poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate some loan decisions.  This is especially concerning when considering the high capital cost and high default rate of nuclear projects both here at home and internationally.

NRG’s South Texas Project (STP) proposed expansion near Bay City, TX is high on the list of projects being considered for a federal loan guarantee under this program.  Many of NRG’s financial partners on this project, Toshiba, Tepco (the operators of the doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi plant) and the Japanese government (through loan guarantees)  are probably looking at considerable contraints in being able to make substantial financial investments in projects outside of Japan for the foreseeable future.  Taxpayers should be concerned about issues with loan guarantee program’s ability to adequately assess the risks of their loan decisions.

The U.S. should immediately halt subsidies and instead focus on developing solar and wind power.

Take Action on Nuclear Subsidies

The administration must take off the blinders, look hard at what is going on in Japan and realize that yes, a catastrophe can happen here.

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On last night’s Rachel Maddow Show, Ms. Maddow provided some interesting information about how much radioactive fuel might be on site at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.  We’ve provided a quick overview below, but the show’s presentation and graphics are much better than what we can provide.  Click here to watch the segment on “How much radioactive material is at the Fukushima plant?”

Chernobyl180 tons of fuel exploded into the atmosphere

 

Nuclear fuel believed to be on site at Fukushima Dai-ichi**

 

No. 1

No. 2 No. 3 No. 4 No. 5 No. 6

Common spent fuel pond located somewhere on site

Reactor Fuel

70 tons

90 tons 90 tons * 90 tons 90 tons

130 tons

 
Spent Fuel Pools***

50 tons

100 tons 90 tons 130 tons 160 tons

150 tons

Unknown

Total

120 tons

190 tons 180 tons 220 tons 250 tons

280 tons

1,240 tons

*       Reactor No. 3 is reported to have reprocessed fuel which means there is a mixture of uranium and plutonium in the fuel rods.

**     This information was reported by HKN News Japan, and was verified by MSNBC through Japanese and American nuclear experts as being their best estimate of the nuclear fuel on site at Fukushima Dai-ichi.

***   The spent fuel is less hot and less radioactive than the reactor fuel in the core, but without knowing how old the spent fuel rods are there is know way to know what the total radioactivity house at the plant is.

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Back in January, Texans For A Sound Energy Policy (TSEP) filed formal legal contentions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) urging denial of Exelon’s application for an Early Site Permit (ESP) for a proposed nuclear power plant site south of Victoria, Texas.

Yesterday, TSEP appeared at a hearing before a three-judge panel of the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board (ASLB) to press its legal and scientific arguments.  This is the first NRC proceeding since onset of the ongoing Japanese nuclear disaster. 

TSEP argued that nuclear power is a high risk, high stakes business, and that the events in Japan must be paramount in the board’s determination of the suitability of the site for the construction of one or more nuclear power reactors – a determination that includes both safety concerns and environmental impact concerns.  TSEP believes that this site is neither safe nor environmentally acceptable and that the key to preventing nuclear and environmental disasters is to address site selection honestly, openly and comprehensively.

From a safety perspective, TSEP has raised four proposed contentions and noted, from the outset, their concerns with the cavalier attitude of Exelon, and a process that appears designed to deliberately obscure key safety issues regarding the site from the public.

TSEP said that their perception is that Exelon believes that it does not matter if there is faulting, hundreds of oil and gas wells, toxic gas and methane and inadequate water supply as long as the power block itself is not directly affected.  Additionally, there is a total disdain for any instability and uncertainty of the geologic platform for the proposed facility which is silt and clay riddled by fractures and oil and gas penetrations.  That coupled with the fact that there is co-location with toxic and explosive gas  poses potential dangers to the safe operation of a nuclear

TSEP believes good engineering can address many potential safety issues, but that we cannot engineer around issues that are not recognized, studied and evaluated.

In light of what the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is dealing with, water – which has been a major environmental concern – now shows itself to be a major safety issue.  According to Jim Blackburn, the attorney representing TSEP,

Exelon’s proposed plan includes a cooling pond that is clearly crossed by two and potentially four subsurface faults.  These faults clearly threaten the stability of the cooling pond.  Exelon does not deny this but instead argues that it does not matter if the cooling pond fails because it is not a safety feature.  It seems that the Japanese situation suggests that a reserve supply of water may in fact be a major safety issue.  Without the salt water to pour on the core as a last resort, the situation in Japan would already have been worse.  There is no such fall-back plan here.  The cooling pond would function as a last resort facility, but it may in fact be breached and drained, assuming sufficient water to fill the pond at all.

Click here to watch a segment of the Rachel Maddow Show for information on spent fuel pools.

We hope the NRC will slow some of these license approvals and re-licensing applications down until they have had time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work when backup systems fail. 

The ASLB will be reviewing and deciding which contentions put forth by TSEP will be heard in a licensing hearing later this year.

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I’ve just spent the past few days in a dizzying whirl of activity around SXSW Interactive (or SXSWi)- between ACT Lobby Day yesterday and Monday testifying in/monitoring 3 committees on 7 bills, it was tough to make it to everything I wanted, but over the weekend I had some really amazing experiences.

SXSW logoBy far, the most positive thing I’ve seen here was SXSW had a panel organized on the fly- all about how to help Japan. I knew we were discussing it in different places, but in less than 48 hours from tragedy striking, there were some of the best minds in tech and thought leaders from various industries working together to make disaster relief a priority:   sxsw4japan.org: How You Can Impact Earthquake Relief Absolutely amazing to me the good will and nature of people willing to come together to help complete strangers halfway across the globe. We are blessed to live in such a time.

One of the best panels I went to was Why My Phone Should Turn Off the Stove. (more…)

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The tragic events unfolding in Japan demand a re-examination of U.S. nuclear policy.  While stocks in nuclear plummet and nuclear industry lobbyists scramble on Capitol Hill to shore up support for massive federal subsidies to kick-start the stagnate industry, concerns regarding the existing aging fleet are surfacing and should be heeded.  Click here to read more about specific concerns about some of the aging US nuclear fleet.

Amazingly, despite emerging concerns about existing and proposed reactors, the Obama administration has said it will not back off its plans to further prop up the nuclear industry through increased taxpayer-backed loan guarantees and the inclusion of nuclear power technology in the administration’s clean energy standard. The administration has included $36 billion in loan guarantees in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012. Instead, it should immediately halt subsidies and instead focus on developing solar and wind power.  Take Action on Nuclear Subsidies

The administration  must take off the blinders, look hard at what is going on in Japan and realize that yes, a catastrophe can happen here.

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San Antonio’s electric utility, CPS, has halted their negotiations on a power purchase agreement between CPS and STP’s expansion units 3 and 4.  CPS’s CEO, Doyle Beneby, announced that CPS and NRG have mutually agreed to terminate their PPA negotiations at this point. 

It would appear that the issues facing NRG’s Japanese partners (including Tepco, the beleaguered owners of the doomed Fukushima nuclear plant) are giving everyone pause in their relentless pursuit of the STP expansion.

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Major US news agencies reporting a hydrogen explosion at Fukushima Dai-ichi No. 2 may have breached the containment vessel. Tepco, the Japanese company that owns this plant has evacuated operators from the area.  There are reports of elevated radiation levels in the area near the plant.
This plant just had its license extended in February.  South Texas Plant (STP) is in the process of extending its license for its 22 year old units 1 and 2.
Check national news sources for breaking news.

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