Greens see Chamber support of renewables as ‘window dressing’

Published Tuesday, March 21, 2017 in E&E Daily.

This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released statements favoring the repeal of the Interior Department’s coal mining Stream Protection Rule, and praising the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

When it comes to renewable energy, a recent Chamber blog post about solar energy touts its growth but criticizes state policies that encourage people to install photovoltaic panels by allowing them to sell utilities their excess power.

“While the proponents of rooftop solar may get all the attention, it is really America’s utilities that are leading the way with the proliferation of solar use,” the blog said.

Even though the Chamber — and its Institute for 21st Century Energy — has been talking more about cleaner power sources, critics and even some business leaders say the group appears to be more in sync with the interests of fossil fuels and utilities.

“We have been very disappointed in some of the rhetoric that has gone into some of the blogs,” Dan Whitten, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said during a recent interview.

Chamber leaders say they don’t believe it’s an “either-or” issue “whether referring to specific sources of energy, or the question of improving the environment versus utilizing energy sources,” said the business group’s spokesman, Matt Letourneau.

But Dan Dudis, head of left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch, dismisses the group’s talk of resource impartiality.

“They now have some window dressing about renewables,” he said. “But then you actually look at what they are doing, and they have never supported anything that would be helpful to the renewable industry.”

Letourneau rebutted that statement, pointing to Chamber actions over the years that have benefited renewables, including backing the production tax credit. The American Wind Energy Association cheered the move in 2012.

Still, the Chamber is among many groups that sued U.S. EPA over power plant greenhouse gas limits, which would have encouraged the growth of renewables.

Several companies have quit the Chamber because of its stance on climate action, including one of the world’s largest, Apple Inc., in 2009.

Last year, Greenpeace noted that electronic giant Intel Corp. criticized the “negative position on federal climate legislation” from the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Also last year, several Democratic senators, including climate hawk Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, released a report accusing the Chamber of being out of step with its members.

“I guess it must reflect an overwhelming balance in their membership toward traditional fossil fuels,” said Whitten, who used to be a top communications aide for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. The Chamber has been bullish on the growth of gas production.

‘Show me the money’

Chamber of Commerce board members, according to the group’s website, include executives for oil company ConocoPhillips Co., coal company Alliance Resource Partners LP, gas company Sempra Energy and coal company Peabody Energy Corp.

Other board members include executives of nuclear company NuScale Power LLC; utility Southern Co.; Entergy Louisiana LLC; Florida Power and Light Co., which owns solar energy production; and Virginia contractor Bay Electric Co. Inc., which handles large-scale solar projects.

Dudis described the chamber, under current CEO Thomas Donohue, as staking out strategies and political positions that can help the organization’s cash flow.

“Tom Donohue has been very clear that the Chamber goes where the money is,” said Dudis, noting a plaque on Donohue’s desk that, according to a New York Times profile, says, “Show me the money.”

“We have to raise $5 million a week to run this place,” Donohue told the Times in 2013. The article noted the Chamber’s precarious finances before Donohue took over in 1997.

Renewable sources of energy have been growing exponentially. But Dudis said, “The Exxons and Chevrons still have more money to throw around.”

The Chamber, like the fossil fuel industry, has become more reliably Republican, critics argue, turning away from more bipartisan outreach.

The group went from supporting the Clinton administration’s health care reform effort during the early 1990s to now giving its backing mostly to GOP candidates, according to a review of campaign finance records.

The Center for Responsive Politics said the Chamber spent more than $100 million on lobbying in 2016, more than $300,000 in campaign contributions — only roughly $10,000 of which went for Democrats — and more than $29 million in outside political spending.

The Times profile said Donohue was a registered independent. His repeated commitment to free enterprise and fewer regulations, however, puts him closer to the Republican mainstream.

Karen Harbert, CEO of the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, worked as Department of Energy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

A rival chamber

When the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce launched in 2011, founders saw it as a chance to capitalize on what they saw as the other chamber’s reluctance to fully embrace the green agenda.

“At one time, businesses that focused on sustainability and clean energy did not have a voice in traditional/mainstream business organizations and chambers,” CEO Michelle Thatcher wrote in an email.

“And those traditional organizations certainly do not represent the sustainability-focused economy and the companies that are driving it,” she said.

The U.S. Green Chamber, which grew out of the Green Chamber of San Diego County in California, has more than 1,000 members, Thatcher said. They include companies that focus on clean energy and large diversified corporations.

A 2011 article in Fast Company identified firms like Toyota Motor Corp. and the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc. as being involved.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains much larger, claiming to represent the interests of more than 3 million businesses, according to the group’s website. Thatcher doesn’t think many of their affiliates overlap.

She said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s agenda is not sustainable and will cripple the economy, “in addition to the devastating effects they will have on our natural environment and our population’s health and well-being.”

She added: “We are NOT in alignment with their energy and environmental platform and are very grateful to be able to provide a different option for the business community.”

‘Energy agnostic’

The Solar Energy Industries Association, which supports both Republicans and Democrats and benefits from some U.S. Chamber policies but chafes at others, is remaining a member.

“We are a proud member of the business community. We are increasingly becoming a part of the energy mainstream,” Whitten said.

Letourneau said the Chamber’s fight for less regulation and free enterprise benefits all its members, not just fossil fuel developers.

“One of the areas that is particularly relevant today is our focus on the inability to site and permit facilities of all kinds, including renewable projects, which we see as a major impediment to economic growth,” he said.

Letourneau said that the Chamber’s focus on rolling back regulations affecting coal, oil and gas — the latter of which, he points out, has helped reduce carbon emissions — is because of the past administration’s anti-fossil-fuel agenda.

“Over the past eight years, traditional energy sources have been under assault and seen their potential limited through federal regulations and executive orders,” he said.

“The U.S. Chamber is an advocate for market-driven solutions that provide affordable and reliable energy, which is why we’ve pushed back on some of these economically harmful rules.”

Still, Whitten would rather not see the Chamber take such a negative view of policies like net metering, which allows people to make money from installing solar power.

Regarding claims the practice hurts consumers, Whitten said, “We have considerable consumer protection materials that we would happily share with them.”

He said, “There is some sense you can force positive change through engagement. We would just like them to be energy agnostic.”

Dudis doesn’t see it happening — yet. “I do think Donohue leaving is a big piece of that,” he said. “I can’t see it changing while he’s still there.”

Clinton’s ‘smart dude’ on climate and energy

Published Thursday, July 28, 2016 in Greenwire.

PHILADELPHIA — Lobbyists and journalists surrounded Trevor Houser after a panel discussion on energy and the environment here this week.

Houser, an adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, has been in demand at events related to the party’s national convention. He’s not only helping craft the candidate’s positions but also explaining them.

“He’s a person who really gets that intersection of what can be done in government, both nationally, internationally,” Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta said during an interview.

Houser and Podesta, who used to advise President Obama on climate matters, are behind the Clinton campaign’s muscular but also practical approach to environmental policy.

“We put a premium on going faster and further but doing it in a way in which we feel we have the confidence we can get it done,” said Podesta, calling Houser “the best at analyzing that.”

The campaign, for example, is open to the idea of a carbon tax — Houser prefers the more inclusive and politically palatable term “carbon price” — but is not betting on one. He calls it part of a toolbox rather than the only policy option to combat global warming.

“We need a plan that we can implement day one,” Houser said during a discussion hosted this week by The Washington Post. “We are delighted it’s in the platform.”

During another panel hosted by Politico, Houser quipped about high temperatures in Philadelphia to make a broader point about global warming: “It’s past the point this week in Philly that a dry cleaner can’t save this coat.”

When it comes to hydraulic fracturing, which many environmentalists would like to ban, the Clinton campaign would rather talk about increased regulation. “We had a healthy debate on this topic,” said Houser.

Houser is a partner at Rhodium Group LLC, a consulting firm, where he has worked for the past decade. In 2009, he joined the State Department as an adviser on international energy, climate and environmental issues when Clinton headed the agency.

Podesta said Houser remained to help set the stage for last year’s Paris climate accord. “I spent a lot of time with him in Beijing” hammering out a preliminary climate agreement with China, he said.

Now, said Podesta, “he’s been a stalwart in helping us putting together ideas and commitments that can move beyond even our Paris commitments, tackling the problem of accelerating the deployment of clean energy.”

‘Smart dude’

Energy lobbyists have sought out Houser this week to make sure they have a channel to the campaign and, potentially, the new administration. He’s also hearing from environmentalists, many of whom want Clinton to be more forceful in her approach.

“Trevor is a smart dude. He is one of the more knowledgeable people I’ve worked with on climate change since I’ve been at the Sierra Club,” said Executive Director Michael Brune.

Houser went to the City University of New York for economics and co-authored the book “Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus.” He also helps head the Climate Impact Lab, which assesses the costs of global warming.

But that doesn’t mean Houser is an activist. His task is identifying the right policy and also a viable way of achieving it under tough political circumstances.

“I think he has a clear eye on what it will take to build support across the country, build political support, to advance aggressive solutions,” said Brune.

“We may disagree on certain topics, but what I respect about Trevor, particularly when we disagree, he listens very close,” added Brune, pointing to “his ability to see a big picture and understand the perspectives of other people.”

Coal plan

Houser grew up in Wyoming, the country’s top coal-producing state, and said he went to a school that benefited from taxes on coal production.

Houser this week said the Clinton campaign sent him on a tour of coal-producing communities, including in Wyoming, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. His research helped the campaign develop its $30 billion plan to help revitalize coal communities.

The policy menu includes investments in education and research, repurposing abandoned mine and former power plant land, building infrastructure and offering new economic tax incentives, and protecting workers.

Coal’s downturn and Clinton’s support for increased regulations have helped make her unpopular in the nation’s coal fields. Houser said Clinton was “committed to being the president of all Americans, whether they voted for her or not.”

He said coal jobs would likely not return to pre-downturn conditions “despite what Donald Trump promises” because of competition from natural gas and renewables.

Beyond the issues that have long made headlines, like climate and the country’s energy future, Houser said Clinton’s agenda focuses on myriad issues dealing with environmental justice. He pointed to ongoing lead pollution problems as an example.

“There’s a lot of environmental threats we face,” said Houser. “I would argue there has never been a more consequential race when it comes to energy and environmental policy.”

Houser said Podesta speaks about political issues in terms of friction. There wasn’t that much friction on climate during the last presidential race, he said.

“There is a lot of friction this year,” House said during an interview. “It’s an issue where there is a great contract and an issue where there is a lot of friction.”

Reporter Josh Kurtz contributed.

As Cold War abuses linger, Navajo Nation faces new mining push

Published Tuesday, December 13, 2011 in Greenwire.

SHIPROCK, N.M. — This Navajo Nation town of 8,000 people — named for the towering rock formation that looms in the distance — is a living monument to uranium mining’s deadly legacy.

At the end of Uranium Boulevard here is a 100-acre waste dump overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy. This former uranium mill — which helped build the atomic bombs that ended World War II and fueled the United States in its arms race against the Soviet Union — has dealt the Navajo homeland, or Dinétah, a particularly hard blow.

Navajo mine workers and others on the reservation have suffered high rates of disease linked to contamination.

“That legacy that we relied on has had a big burden on this nation, the Navajo Nation,” U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld told a conference last month in Farmington, N.M., that focused on uranium cleanups.

Despite an ongoing five-year plan to coordinate cleanup efforts among federal and tribal agencies, one high-priority site is now clean and more than 500 polluted mine sites remain. In northeast New Mexico, the Navajo tribe must grapple with dirty water, contaminated land and even radioactive homes, some of which were built with uranium mining waste.

“It’s an untold story,” said Blumenfeld, who leads the Region 9 office in San Francisco. “The biggest hurdle is the sheer number of sites. We’re diligently going down our list.”

Miners extracted almost 4 million tons of uranium ore from Navajo lands between 1944 and 1986, EPA says. While military demand for uranium for bomb manufacturing shrank by the 1960s, nuclear power plants quickly picked up the slack. In 1971, the federal government allowed uranium to be sold on the open market for the first time.

“We need to put our heads together and get rid of those holes that are still open,” Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told the cleanup conference. “We need to do that right away.”

EPA, which has been helping coordinate the five-year plan, is moving forward with cleaning up the largest abandoned uranium mine on the Dinétah. Decontaminating the Northeast Church Rock Mine will require the removal of 1.4 million tons of dirty soil, an effort expected to take several years.

“This is where the milling took place, right here,” said Navajo anti-uranium activist Larry King, as he stood beside an isolated highway in Church Rock, a town of about 1,000 people near Gallup, N.M.

King, a former uranium miner, talks about the 1979 waste spill from the United Nuclear Corp. site that polluted Rio Puerco — the largest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history.

The spill happened just a few minutes’ drive from King’s home. There, in a rugged landscape with stunning rock formations, one can see hills made from mining waste.

“Just to warn you,” King said, “there are high readings in this area.”

‘Polluters should pay’

General Electric Co., United Nuclear’s parent company, has tentatively agreed to pay $44 million for the Northeast Church Rock Mine cleanup.

“There are others that we have not found yet,” EPA’s Blumenfeld said. “The polluters should pay. The polluter pay principle is something that is going to have to come to the fore here.”

In her book “Yellow Dirt,” journalist Judy Pasternak, perhaps the most well-known chronicler of the Navajo fight with uranium mining pollution, describes how companies walked away from mining operations and left liability behind.

With the United States desperate for uranium to build atomic weapons to compete with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, she wrote, executives and government officials — including regulators at the former Atomic Energy Commission — paid little attention to environmental damage and radiation exposure.

Navajo President Shelley said a joke here goes like this: “Don’t turn the light off, we’ll glow in the dark.”

In 1978 Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act to give DOE authority over uranium mill waste sites like the Shiprock facility. The 1980 Superfund law and the Interior Department mine-reclamation program helped address some sites. And in 1990, lawmakers created a program to compensate people affected by radiation at mines and from nuclear weapons tests.

But it wasn’t until 2007 that tribal and federal agencies got together to really tackle the lasting problems of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. Pasternak’s articles in the Los Angeles Times prompted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to press for immediate action.

“We’re on track to make all the commitments we made in the five year plan,” Clancy Tenley, EPA’s regional tribal coordinator, told the cleanup conference. Tenley was among several federal and tribal leaders touting the achievements of the last several years.

EPA and tribal authorities say they have inspected more than 600 homes and other buildings for uranium contamination. The agency has already torn down 34 of those structures. Displaced Navajo families are eligible for financial compensation and temporary housing. EPA says it has participated in rebuilding 17 residences.

Federal and tribal leaders admit that evicting people can be traumatic. But they say they try to make up for it by making sure Navajos get construction jobs and following traditions. Homes, for example, must face east.

“They are so happy,” Darryl Jimson, planner with the Navajo Nation Community Housing and Infrastructure Department, said of the people given new homes. “Some of them cry.”

‘Tough sell’

It has taken decades for the Navajo to learn about the risk of living on contaminated land.

In the 1970s, workers were using the Shiprock dump to practice with heavy machinery. And to this day, it is hard to convince tribal residents to not drink contaminated water.

Many elderly Navajo don’t speak English and have grown used to living off their land. “They just don’t understand or they don’t believe it,” said Chris Mike, an officer with the Navajo Department of Water Resources. “It’s a tough sell.”

Thirty percent of Navajo residents do not have treated water, and numerous water sources have been deemed too dangerous to drink. One alternative is to truck water to thousands of people around the reservation. Residents meet the trucks at designated locations because many homes are too remote.

“We are 60, almost 70 years into this legacy,” Chris Shuey, uranium program director at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said in an interview. “And we have left it to the children and the grandchildren of the original miners. And we are going to end up leaving it to our children and our grandchildren.”

Not only does Shuey lament the time it has taken the federal government to realize the severity of the problem, he is also upset that officials do not yet know the full scope of the health problems the Navajo people face. Researchers next year will begin a federally funded study to determine the impact uranium waste has on pregnancy.

“We’ve essentially just started the human health studies in the last 10 years,” Shuey said. “We’re 30 years behind.”

And there is a long way to go. Cleaning up all the contaminated sites will likely take decades. Federal and tribal agency leaders have already began talking about another five-year plan.

“A lot of community people get exhausted and deflated,” Shuey said. At the same time, they want to fight until the Navajo Nation is clean: “They’re hoping that it’s the next 10- to 20-year plan.”

The current cleanup framework has turned decades of haphazard response into a coordinated effort. Still, it is not hard to spot fissures. Many Navajo, for example, say DOE should be playing a larger role — and spending more money — in the cleanup effort.

“There’s a major gap in the response because they don’t have the authority to deal with mines,” Shuey said. “And they’re right now the biggest problem.”

‘Unacceptable’

Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation EPA, which has dozens of workers participating in the cleanup, has called on DOE to close the Shiprock site and move waste off the reservation. Tribal leaders say waste is seeping off the dump.

But that proposal is expensive and complicated. It is being resisted by the government.

“People would be swearing,” a Navajo Nation EPA official said at a cleanup-conference session, referring to how non-American Indians would react if the government handled a cleanup in their community as they have here. “You treat tribes and other communities off the Nation differently. For me that’s unacceptable.”

The Shiprock disposal cell is bordered by 77 acres of a large-rock barrier called riprap. The site is on a terrace overlooking the floodplain of the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

Water from the site seeps into Many Devils Wash nearby. Experts cannot say whether the puddle of reddish-brown water is contaminated, but DOE officials concede they worry about pollutants like manganese, selenium and, of course, uranium.

“We are trying to trace back the sources of those seeps,” said David Schafer, team leader and manager at DOE’s Office of Legacy Management. “The groundwater at Shiprock is a very, very important issue for us.”

Federal and tribal officials say they take pains to consult with the Navajo people, but that is not a simple task. The Navajo Nation sprawls over more than 24,000 square miles, an area larger than some states.

“We have concerns and we should be the ones to have an input. We are the ones living there,” Bess Tsosie of Mariano Lake, N.M., said in an interview. “It’s our land that’s impacted. It’s our health, our animals, our plants.”

Tsosie leads a community group in her area, one of several that have sprung up to give residents a voice. “It’s not for us,” she said. “It’s for our children and our grandchildren.”

Amid anger and a host of unresolved issues, companies are moving forward with plans to mine for uranium again near the reservation. Navajo President Shelly said executives are reaching out to him with what has become a taboo subject — new mining inside the Navajo Nation.

Shelly stressed the tribe’s uranium mining ban, “The Navajo Nation set a mandate, a no-uranium mandate.”

But, he acknowledged, the pressure won’t easily go away. “The Navajo Nation,” he said, “is sitting on the finest uranium there is.”

Battle lines form as sprawling dump leaks into W.Va. neighborhood

Published Monday, January 14, 2013 in Greenwire.

CHESTER, W.Va. — The ground here is leaking.

Several neighbors have moved away to escape seeps coming out of the hillside. They say the leaks have dampened their backyards and infested their homes with mold.

Curt and Debbie Havens, who put a trailer on their Pyramus Road lot in the mid-1970s and built their current home in 1979, are ready to pack up, too.

“It’s equivalent to seven fire hoses,” Curt Havens said, describing one outflow. “If you lay seven fire hoses side by side, that’s how much water is coming through there.”

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