PCAST Federal Energy Policy Report Released

U.S. public energy RD&D spending as share of GDP is only 1/3 of Japan's

Yesterday morning the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its “Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies Through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy.”  This report, requested by President Obama, issues recommendations for the Administration and the Department of Energy on how to “transform the energy system” over the next two decades through “leadership in energy technology innovation.”

Informed by a working group of PCAST members and energy experts, this report makes recommendations that are, in large, both feasible and ambitious.  Based on our reading of the report and the summaries presented by co-chairs Maxine Savitz and Ernest J. Moniz at the release event, we particularly applaud PCAST in calling for the coordination of federal energy policies and for its recommendation that the US Federal government spend $16 Billion annually on energy RD&D.

Some of the key recommendations of this report are to:

  • Establish an interagency Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) led by the Office of the President (OOP)
  • Based on the QER, realign federal energy subsidies and incentives and align DOE processes and organization to meet energy objectives
  • Enhance energy technology innovation and technology by exercising the Federal Government’s purchasing power
  • Increase annual energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) funding to about $16B, with $10-16B of that generated through “new revenue streams”
  • Direct $12B of the new RD&D money to outside the DOE-national lab sphere and focus on funding DOE competitive programs such as ARPA-e
  • Initiate a multidisciplinary social science research program

While we approve of the goals and objectives of this report, we have significant concerns about the feasibility and implementation of both the QER and the RDD&D fund.

The QER is not a new idea. Rather, it is a timescale change.  The Section 7321 of US Code (Title 42, 84, VIII, 7321) already legally obligates the President to produce and submit to Congress a biennial National Energy Policy Plan.  The comprehensive plan is to be developed with the participation of “consumers, small businesses, and a wide range of other interests, including those of individual citizens who have no financial interest in the energy industry.” The last plan produced was the Bush Administration’s controversial 2001 report, Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future.

While changing the timescale from two years to four years will decrease the time burden on the DOE and the OOP, it will not fundamentally change the fact that the energy review process will still depend upon annual Congressional appropriations for funding as well as continued OOP compliance.  In order to ensure the success of the QER, the relevant legislation must both fund the entire four year process outright and include provisions compelling Congress and of Executive branch to act upon the results and recommendations of the QER.

Raising $16 Billion for energy RDD&D will require finding significant new funds. While the program could and will likely be funded in part through Congressional appropriations, this is neither the preferred nor the most stable long-term funding stream.  Rather, the report calls for generating the funds through “new revenue streams”—government speak for taxes.  Likely to take the form of new energy taxes on transmission, production, generation, and/or consumption, in the current fiscal and political environment new taxes are going to be an extremely hard sell.

To raise these funds, the government must work to build a base of support for energy RDD&D at the national and local levels and must sell the long-term advantages of innovative energy technologies to all energy and energy policy stakeholders.  Support will need to come from voters, local governments, industry and business, regulatory authorities, public utilities, the finance and venture capital sector, academia, and think tanks.  Before a new energy technology tax can be passed and this critical energy technology development process begun, the OOP and DOE must take the helm and begin this necessary, but difficult dialogue.

Both the full PCAST report and executive summary can be accessed here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports.

Responding to Senator Bond on New START

Senator Kit Bond, Republican of Missouri, gave a speech in the Senate on the New START treaty.  Eli Lake’s summary is in the Washington Times.  He made accusations of serious shortcomings in the treaty.  I address these points because they appear to be substantive and earnest, unlike some of the hysteria and outright silliness coming from other treaty opponents.  I believe that the Senator’s concerns are sincere but that does not make them correct.  They reflect, instead, shortcomings in understanding about the treaty, misrepresentation of exiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, and a mistake in statistics. Continue reading

NATO Strategic Concept: One Step Forward and a Half Step Back

NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen presents the alliance’s new Strategic Concept

By Hans M. Kristensen

The new Strategic Concept adopted today by NATO represents one step forward and a half step backward for the alliance’s nuclear weapons policy.

The forward-leaning part of the nuclear policy pledges to actively try to create the conditions for further reducing the number of and reliance on nuclear weapons, recommits to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament, and reaffirms that circumstances in which the alliance could contemplate using its nuclear weapons are “extremely remote.”

But the strategy fails to present any steps that reduce the number of or reliance on nuclear weapons. As such, the new Strategic Concept – Active Engagement, Modern Defence – falls short of the Obama administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review.

Even so, there are important changes in the document that hint of things to come. Continue reading

Illicit Global Trade in Botulinum Neurotoxin

Crystal Structure of Botulinum Neurotoxin Serotype A,  Credit: RCSB Protein Data Bank
Crystal Structure of Botulinum Neurotoxin Serotype A, (Credit: RCSB Protein Data Bank)

The world market in counterfeit pharmaceuticals is estimated to be worth some $75 billion annually.  A couple million dollars worth of this trade can be attributed to the trade of botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT), an extremly potent toxin that, at very low doses, is commonly used in both cosmetic,  e.g. BoTox, and therapeutic medical treatments.  Because BoNT is the most potent toxin known to man, it is grouped with the world’s most lethal potential biological weapons agents, sharing “Select Agent” status with the pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax and plague.  This biowarfare potential puts the existence of illicit laboratories churning out the toxin and of shady distributors selling it worldwide through the Internet into a more disturbing light than most pharmaceutical fraud.   Continue reading

Engaging Yemen on the Sources of Insecurity

  • US aid for Yemen goes predominantly to military and hard security projects.
  • To confront the key sources of instability the U.S. must look beyond military assistance.
  • Tier two engagement will be a critical component of this strategy, especially in looking at challenges to natural resource and human security.
government protesters in Sana'a, 2009

As Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen makes headlines yet again for attempted terrorist activities against the United States, the US government is preparing a $150 million package aimed at training and aiding Yemeni security and military forces.  This unsurprising move represents business as usual for US-Yemeni relations; a continuation of security and terrorism-centric dialogue, policy, and funding that pervades all levels of the two countries’ engagement.    In fact, of the $63 million in aid money to Yemen in FY10, well over half goes toward military and security assistance.

In his October 29th speech on the attempted cargo plane bombings, President Obama announced that the US government intends to “strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups to not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.”   This statement is coupled with an announcement to increase the military aid to Yemen to $150 million.  Considering that the President’s FY11 budget called for just over $100 million in total aid for Yemen, 48% of which was for military and security assistance, this new announcement triples military aid and makes it approximately 75% of Yemen’s aid money.

While security is the primary focus of the FY 11 budget, under its new Yemen strategy USAID is also working to address some of the soft security issues that fuel instability.  Included in this FY11 budget are projects on:

  • Military and security assistance;
  • Responsive governance, a multi-sector project expected to be funded at $43 million for 5 years and aimed to strengthen public policies and institutions;
  • The Community Livelihoods Project, a multi-sector program expected to be funded at $125 million for 5 years with the goal of economic stabilization through government services, job creation, civic participation, and responsive local governance.
  • Urban refugee aid for those living in Sana’a;
  • Public health; and
  • Supporting an independent media.
AQAP, 2009, courtesy of The Long War Journal

This $200 million in aid compares to packages of over $1.5 billion for Egypt, $730 million for Iraq, $680 million for Jordan, $550 million for the West Bank and Gaza, and $250 million for Lebanon.

A recent article by Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out that Yemen suffers from more than just the hard security challenges associated with AQAP, the Houthi Rebellion in Sa’da, and the Southern Mobility separatist movement in the South and in Hadramawt[1]. Boucek notes that, “Beyond its security concerns, Yemen is on the brink of economic disaster, suffering from poor governance and quickly dwindling water supplies.”

The article rightly calls for the U.S. government to expand its aid focus to help Yemen: improve its legal system and laws, fight corruption, increase policing capacity, improve the economy, alter the land distribution and ownership system, and enhance the education system. These policy prescriptions are standard practice in the Middle East—multilateral aid packages with the goals of addressing economic instability, furthering governance and rule of law, promoting civil society, and improving education and with debatable effectiveness. Boucek further calls on the U.S. government to partner with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s largest donor nation at $2 billion a year.

While these prescriptions will be important components in a comprehensive Yemen strategy, they fall short of addressing Yemen’s immediate and long term stability challenges, especially those

related to:  natural resources, population growth, and human health and capacity.

Robust track one and track two Yemeni-U.S. engagement will be necessary over the coming years.  Track two approaches will be especially important for addressing these core resource, population, and human challenges as their solutions are highly technical in nature, the target populations often live in areas with limited central government involvement or legitimacy, and effective solutions will require individual buy-in and stakeholder engagement from diverse actors.

Note that an effective strategy must include cooperation and engagement with the tribal and religious networks and stakeholders that are central components of Yemen’s social structure and civil society.  Tribes especially will be important partners in Yemen’s ongoing stability.  As an example of this, the leader of Yemen’s largest Bakil tribe, Sheikh Naji Abdul Aziz Al-Shayef, recently called for the creation of a coalition aligned with the government against Al Qaeda.

In the immediate future, the U.S. must support both track one and especially track two engagement in:

  • Resource ownership. An immediate problem, Yemen’s oil and natural gas are running out and its water is running out even faster.  The U.S. must support scientists, technologists, and other experts in working with Yemeni government officials, scientists, and stakeholders to determine resource distribution, replenishment rate, and must begin dialogues with stakeholders on how resources are distributed, allocated, and managed.
  • Land ownership. Before radically overhauling the land ownership system, the U.S. must work with the Yemeni government to institute legal safeguards that ensure that traditional land tenure systems are recognized. Current land reform efforts seek to secure land titling through registration and ownership legislation.  However, much land is owned at the tribal level, is communally owned, or is owned by the local mosque for the benefit of the mosque and the area’s poor (generally as a result of land donated through zakat or alms) and land reformation has the potential to further increase poverty as those without registration are displaced.
  • Science and technology (S&T) cooperation. The U.S. government should take advantage of the Arab world’s favorable opinion of U.S. S&T to develop exchange programs and build internal Yemeni S&T capacity, focusing on issues such as water, energy, and biosecurity, which are of mutual need and interest.
  • Refugees. Located not just below Saudi Arabia, but just across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from Africa, Yemen is a country of 23 million people, with almost 200,000 refugees.  The majority of these refugees are from Somalia, with small groups from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Iraq.  The U.S. must work with civil society in the U.S., Yemen, and internationally, as well as with the UNHRC, to develop a strategy for permanent resettlement and to aid refugees as well as the populations in the South of Yemen where the refugee camps are located.
  • Internally displaced persons. Yemen has an estimated 150,000-250,000 internally displaced persons, mostly in Sa’da and the North.  The U.S. must work with local tribes, international human rights and refugee organizations, and the government of Yemen and to develop a strategy for infrastructure and housing development, for public health initiatives, and for economic development.

Long term formal and informal engagement on the following issues is critical:

  • Resource management. With dwindling resources, especially of water and fossil fuels, management is an increasingly critical challenge.  Sustainable resource use and allocation mechanisms are critical.   Their development can be best facilitated by the U.S. supporting tier two collaborations between experts, resource managers, and stakeholders, backed by tier one cooperation with politicians to develop supportive legislation, markets, and profit sharing mechanisms.
  • Infrastructure development.
  • Public health. Foci of these efforts should be infectious diseases, material and reproductive health, access to basic medical services, and population control issues.

No one policy or engagement strategy will be a panacea for Yemen’s root destabilizing factors.  Instead, the U.S. and other donor nations must focus on a variety of strategies at multiple levels of engagement that enhance human capacity and education, stabilize resource use and availability, improve governance, engage Yemen in the global S&T community, and approach Yemen as both a unique state and as a critical actor in a volatile region.

[1] For an overview of the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM) in Hadrawawt, see Michael Horton’s article “The Growing Separatists Threat in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate,” TerrorismMonitor Volume VIII, Issue 40.