FAS Unveils 23 Actionable Recommendations for Improving Wildland Fire Policy
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federation of American Scientists unveiled 23 actionable policy proposals developed by expert contributors. These recommendations were developed with the aim of contributing to a holistic, evidence-based approach to managing wildland fire in the United States and in response to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission’s request for stakeholder input in its work to develop a report for Congress .
In partnership with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs, FAS hosted a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to collect, refine, and amplify actionable, evidence-based ideas to improve how we live with fire.
The recommendations cover issues across the wildland fire policy spectrum, falling into four categories: Landscapes and Communities, Public Health and Infrastructure, Science, Data, and Technology, and Workforce. Contributors come from academia, the private sector, and nonprofits and have expertise in public health, fire intelligence, forestry, cultural burning, and more.
“The ideas we are presenting showcase how the development of evidence-based policy can be inclusive of more diverse expert input and lead to better results. We are eager to see the final recommendations the Commission ultimately relays to Congress, and how they respond” says FAS Director of Science Policy Erica Goldman.
“These are urgent issues that can only be solved through cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaborations. We’re grateful to be at the table and excited to see how these bold ideas can evolve and inform public policy across local and state governments,” says CCST Senior Science Officer Teresa Feo.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is a nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization founded in 1945 to meet national security challenges with evidence-based, scientifically-driven, and nonpartisan policy, analysis, and research. The organization works to advance progress on a broad suite of contemporary issues where science, technology, and innovation policy can deliver dramatic progress, and seeks to ensure that scientific and technical expertise have a seat at the policymaking table.
Assessing Agency-Reported Progress on the Justice40 Initiative
Question: What do family game nights and federal government initiatives have in common?
Answer: They’re both much easier to successfully start than to successfully finish.
Coordinating multiple stakeholders—each with their unique interests and perspectives—around a common goal is simply difficult. At FAS, we have yet to figure out how to best tackle family game nights. But we have found that for complex federal initiatives involving many agencies, taking the time to step back and assess progress to date often paves the way for continued future success. We also recognize that unless specifically tasked and resourced, Executive Branch agencies and offices generally lack capacity to do this on their own.
That’s why today, FAS is releasing an independent assessment of agency-reported progress on the Administration’s Justice40 Initiative—a landmark whole-of-government effort to ensure that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.
The complete assessment is freely available here. A supplemental spreadsheet to the assessment is available here.
The assessment focuses on the 175 Justice40 recommendations issued by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in May 2021. Key takeaways include:
- Federal agencies reported tangible progress on half of the WHEJAC’s Justice40 recommendations, such as reducing exposure to lead and investing in the LIHEAP program to lower home energy bills.
- While this progress is commendable, it is important to note that agency-reported progress does not always match the lived reality of stakeholders. There is an opportunity and a need for the WHEJAC and federal agencies to co-develop strategies for tracking Justice40 implementation that incorporate multiple perspectives (e.g., from government officials, impacted communities, local leaders, and independent experts).
- Agencies struggled to implement a quarter of the recommendations due to barriers such as lack of statutory authority, lack of resourcing, or lack of clarity on what particular actions would constitute implementation. The WHEJAC should consider revisiting and revising these recommendations to improve actionability.
- There are clear pathways for the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC), working with CEQ, to facilitate near-term progress on a number of the WHEJAC’s recommendations that have gone largely unfulfilled to date. In parallel, there are a number of high-interest topic areas—including clean transit and transportation, urban forestry and urban greening, and varied aspects of climate mitigation and resiliency—for which the WHEJAC should consider building out additional recommendation.
Additional background and insights from the assessment are provided below.
The WHEJAC and the Justice40 Initiative
President Biden launched the Justice40 Initiative within days of taking office in January 2021. Executive Order (E.O.) 14008, which created the Initiative, also established the first-ever White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). The WHEJAC comprises two dozen experts in environmental justice, climate change, disaster preparedness, racial inequity, and related fields.
The WHEJAC’s mission is to provide advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC) “on how to increase the Federal Government’s efforts to address current and historic environmental injustice.” The WHEJAC’s first suite of recommendations, released in May 2021, included 175 specifically focused on the Justice40 Initiative. In May 2022, CEQ delivered a required report to Congress that included responses from the federal agencies named in each of these.
Assessing agency-reported progress on Justice40
To inform the WHEJAC’s future efforts, and to support ongoing implementation of the Justice40 Initiative, we at FAS conducted an independent assessment of the WHEJAC’s Justice40 recommendations and CEQ’s corresponding report. We emphasize that this assessment was scoped to elucidate key insights and trends from agency-reported progress on Justice40, and did not include independent verification of agency responses. The assessment includes five sections:
- Section 1 (Summary of agency-reported progress) describes how we evaluated agency-reported progress on the WHEJAC’s Justice40 recommendations. We found that agencies detailed tangible progress for about half (50%) and did not illustrate tangible progress for about a quarter (24%) of the recommendations. Implementation status could not be assessed for the remainder. The assessment supplement maps each recommendation to its corresponding agency response(s) and to its corresponding quantitative and qualitative evaluations from FAS.
- Section 2 (Improving existing recommendations) identifies Justice40 recommendations that could not be fully implemented because of (i) a lack of statutory authority, (ii) inappropriate assignment of the recommendation to a particular agency or agencies, (iii) lack of resources, and/or (iv) vague language. This section also provides suggestions for how the WHEJAC may wish to revisit and/or strengthen the recommendations in question.
- Section 3 (Prioritizing progress on unfulfilled recommendations) highlights Justice40 recommendations which the IAC may wish to consider as priorities for future progress. FAS selected these recommendations based on holistic evaluation of (i) recommendation feasibility, (ii) indicated agency willingness to pursue additional responsive action, and (iii) whether there is a clear role for the IAC to play in facilitating implementation.
- Section 4 (Building out additional recommendations) identifies high-interest topics for which the WHEJAC provided few or no recommendations. As it continues its work, the WHEJAC may wish to consider building out additional recommendations for agency action related to these topics. These topics include:
- Clean energy beyond solar power
- Clean transit and transportation
- Urban forestry and urban greening
- Drinking-water pollutants beyond lead
- Ensuring environmental justice for migrant and seasonal workers
- Varied aspects of climate mitigation and resiliency
- Linguistic isolation
- Section 5 (Implementation highlights) draws attention to Justice40 recommendations where FAS identified particularly notable progress on implementation. These highlights are both independently commendable and indicate areas with momentum that the WHEJAC and IAC can leverage for follow-on work.
Read the full assessment:
- Assessment of progress on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC)’s Justice40 recommendations
Countering Climate Change With Renewable Energy Technologies
Renewable energy technologies, such as advanced biofuels for transportation, are key for U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change
Climate change is bringing about rising temperatures, which have significant negative impacts on humans and the environment, and transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, can help meet this challenge. One consequence of higher global temperatures is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that cause massive amounts of harm and damage. As depicted in Figure 1, six of the 10 costliest extreme weather events in the U.S. have occurred in the last 10 years, amounting to over $411 billion in damages (in 2020 dollars and adjusted for inflation). The other four occurred between 2004 and 2008, and the costs of future extreme weather events are expected to keep climbing.
Moreover, the World Health Organization estimates that, globally, climate change is responsible for over 150,000 deaths per year. This is because in addition to extreme weather events, climate change contributes to the spread of diseases, reduced food production, and many other problems.
Transitioning to renewable energy, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, is one way to help slow down the effects of climate change. While renewables used to be a more expensive option, new clean energy technologies are lowering costs and helping to move economies away from fossil fuels. For example, solar panel prices decreased 75 to 80 percent between 2009 and 2015. Due to similar trends in other renewables like wind and hydropower, renewable energy generation technology accounts for over half of all new power generation capacity brought online worldwide every year since 2011.
More must be done to ensure that renewable energy technologies are key contributors to the mitigation of climate change. As of 2018, solar and wind accounted for less than 4% of all the energy used in the U.S. (Figure 2). The amount of energy generated by solar panels has increased almost 46-fold since 2008, but still only amounts to about 1% of the total energy generated in the country. Unfortunately, renewables currently provide only a small fraction of the total energy produced, and to counter climate change, this contribution must drastically increase.
Nonrenewable sources are still frequently used because they are very dense in energy. In the transportation sector, for example, gas or diesel fuels have about 40 times more energy, pound for pound, than the leading electric battery technologies. In order for an electric car to travel 360 miles, which is the average distance traveled on a full 12.4 gallon tank of gas, the car would need a battery weighing over 1,300 pounds.
To reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes, one potential solution is biofuels. Biofuels are produced by breaking down plant material and converting it into usable fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel. Corn ethanol is already added to gas to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. However, creating ethanol is not a zero-carbon process, and supplementing with corn ethanol averages just under 40 percent lower carbon emissions than using only gasoline. Corn ethanol also relies on land which could be used for growing other food crops. Researchers are currently studying how to use invasive plants, as well as plants that require little water, fertilizer, or land to grow, to create the next generation of biofuels. Some promising plant feedstock options include hemp, switchgrass, carrizo cane, jatropha shrubs, and algae. New biotechnologies are also being studied to develop more efficient ways to break down biomass into sugars, which microbes then convert into biofuels. There is also ongoing research to create microbes that can directly convert plants to biofuels, and to enable microbes to produce long-chain, energy-dense hydrocarbons that could be used to fuel heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation developed several recommendations which could bolster the implementation of biofuels. These recommendations include:
- Increasing investments in bioenergy and biomanufacturing research and development by 150 percent by the next five years;
- Engaging the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture to support the development of biofuels for aviation, shipping, and “other hard-to-electrify transportation sectors;” and
- Expanding research into gene-editing tools that can be used to improve biomass processing, increasing the diversity of plant feedstocks that could be leveraged for lower-cost biofuel production.
By improving the efficiency of renewable energy technologies like biofuels, wind, and solar, and further innovating in the renewables space, the U.S. science and technology community can help ensure that renewables are leveraged in the effort to counter the climate crisis.
This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Deep Dive expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.
Solutions for mitigating climate change, advances in nuclear energy, and US leadership in high-performance computing discussed in two key House Science Committee hearings
Climate solutions and nuclear energy
The full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee discussed climate hurdles and solutions in a January 15 hearing titled, “An update on the climate crisis: From science to solutions.” Interestingly, the main point of debate during this hearing was not whether climate change was occurring, but rather the economic impacts of climate change mitigation. As predicted, the debate was split down party lines.
While the Democrats emphasized the negative consequences of climate change and the need to act, several Republican members insisted that China and India rein in their greenhouse gas emissions first.
Congressman Mo Brooks (R, AL-05) asked the most heated series of questions during the hearing, related to India and China’s carbon emissions. He asked if there was a way to force both to reduce their emissions, which, according to a report by the European Union, have seen increases of 305% and 354%, respectively, between 1990 and 2017.
Democrats focused their questions to highlight the science behind climate change. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, TX-30) asked each witness about the biggest hurdles in their fields. Richard Murray, Deputy Director and Vice President for Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that more investments in large-scale ocean observations and data are needed. Pamela McElwee, Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers, said that a lot of advances in land conservation can be made with existing technology, but that investments in genetic modification of crops to restore nutrients to the soil, for example, could be developed. Heidi Steltzer, Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College, encouraged the inclusion of diverse perspectives in climate research to develop the most creative solutions. Congressman Paul Tonko (D, NY-20) summed up the Democrats’ views on climate change by stating that the climate science performed by researchers like the witnesses should inform federal action and that inaction on this issue is costly.
While committee Republicans expressed concerns over the impact of climate regulations on business, members of the committee did emphasize the importance of renewing U.S. leadership in nuclear power, pointing to competition from Russia and China. Nuclear power continues to be the largest source of carbon free electricity in the country.
One of the witnesses, Michael Shellenberger, Founder and President of Environmental Progress noted that the US’ ability to compete internationally in nuclear energy was declining as Russia and China rush to complete new power plants. Losing ground in this area, he added, negatively impacts the U.S.’ reputation as a developer of cutting edge energy technology and dissuades developing countries interested in building nuclear power plants from contracting with the U.S.
As the impacts of climate change take their toll in California, the Caribbean, Australia, and elsewhere, the U.S. Congress remains divided on how to address it.
We thank our community of experts for helping us create an informative resource and questions for the committee.
Supercomputing a high priority for DOE Office of Science
While last week’s House Science Subcommittee on Energy hearing about research supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science touched on a range of issues, competition with China on high-performance computing took center stage.
The big milestone that world powers are competing to reach in the high-performance computing field is the development of the first-ever exascale computer. An exascale computer would greatly enhance research areas like materials development for next-generation batteries, seismic analysis, weather and climate modeling, and even clinical health studies like “identifying risk factors for suicide and best practices for intervention.” It would be about a million times faster than a consumer desktop computer, operating at a quintillion calculations per second. The U.S., China, Japan, and European Union are all working to complete the first exascale system.
In the competition to develop faster and faster supercomputers, China has made rapid progress. In 2001, none of the 500 fastest supercomputers were made in China. As of June 2019, 219 of the 500 fastest supercomputers had been developed by China, and the US had 116. Notably, when the computational power of all these systems is totaled up for each country, China controls 30 percent of the world’s high-performance computing resources, while the U.S. controls 38 percent. In the past, China had asserted that it would complete an exascale computing system this year; however, it is unclear if the country will meet its goal.
A U.S. exascale system due in 2021 – Aurora – is being built at Argonne National Lab in Illinois, and hopes are high that it will be the world’s first completed exascale computer. During the hearing, Representatives Dan Lipinski (D, IL-03) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11) both raised the issue of progress on the project. According to DOE Office of Science director Dr. Christopher Fall, the Aurora project is meeting its benchmarks, with headway being made not only on the hardware, but also on a “once-in-a-generation” reworking and modernization of the software stack that will run on the system, as well as developing high-speed internet for linking generated data with the computation of that data. DOE believes that the U.S. is in a strong position to complete the first-ever exascale computing system, and that our holistic approach to high-performance computing is something that is missing from competitors’ strategies, giving the U.S. even more of an edge.
In addition to the Aurora project, two more exascale computing projects are underway at U.S. National Labs. Frontier, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is also projected to deploy in 2021, while El Capitan, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, should launch in 2022. El Capitan will only be used by individuals in the national security field.
In addition to research in high-performance computing, the diverse and impactful science supported by the DOE Office of Science is truly something to protect and promote. To review the full hearing, click here.
Extreme Weather Threatens Military Facilities
Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are causing damage to U.S. military facilities and could threaten U.S. military infrastructure around the world.
“Is the military ready for climate change?,” asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). “It is not.”
“In the last 12 months, severe storms have devastated Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Offutt Air Force Base,” he said during the House debate on the FY2020 defense authorization bill on July 10.
The defense bill that was passed by the House therefore included several provisions to require the Department of Defense “to plan for and respond to the threat that climate change poses to military installations and military operations.”
Similar requirements to incorporate weather projections in defense facility planning were included in the Senate version of the pending defense authorization bill.
On a political plane, there are still ideologically-driven disparities in perception of the threat of climate change. But those disparate perceptions may soon be overtaken by the reality of climate-induced damage, including damage to defense infrastructure.
“The Department of Defense (DOD) manages more than 1,700 military installations in worldwide coastal areas that may be affected by sea-level rise,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a new brief. See Military Installations and Sea-Level Rise, CRS In Focus, July 26, 2019.
“Hurricane Michael damaged every building on Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base (repair estimate $4.7 billion),” CRS noted. “Hurricane Florence dropped 36 inches of rain, flooding three North Carolina Marine Corps installations (repair estimate $3.6 billion).”
Failure to act will incur increased costs, the Government Accountability Office warned in June.
“Not assessing risks or using climate projections in installation planning may expose DOD facilities to greater-than-anticipated damage or degradation as a result of extreme weather or climate-related effects,” GAO said. See Climate Resilience: DOD Needs to Assess Risk and Provide Guidance on Use of Climate Projections in Installation Master Plans and Facilities Designs, GAO-19-453, June 12, 2019.
“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a January 2019 report to Congress (with a March supplement).
“Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life,” warned outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in January.
“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond,” he told Congress.
Trump Admin Would Curtail Carbon Capture Research
The Trump Administration budget request for FY 2018 would “severely reduce” Energy Department funding for development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies intended to combat the climate change effects of burning fossil fuels.
The United States has “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal,” President Trump said last month, implying that remedial measures to diminish the environmental impact of coal power generation are unnecessary.
Research on the carbon capture technology that could make coal use cleaner by removing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust would be cut by 73% if the Trump Administration has its way.
“The Trump Administration’s approach would be a reversal of Obama Administration and George W. Bush Administration DOE policies, which supported large carbon-capture demonstration projects and large injection and sequestration demonstration projects,” the Congressional Research Service said this week in a new report.
“We have finally ended the war on coal,” President Trump declared.
However, congressional approval of the Administration’s proposal to slash carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development is not a foregone conclusion.
“The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 bill funding DOE disagrees with the Administration budget request and would fund CCS activities at roughly FY2017 levels,” the CRS report said.
“This report provides a summary and analysis of the current state of CCS in the United States.” It also includes a primer on how CCS could work, and a profile of previous funding in this area. See Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the United States, July 24, 2017.
Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.
Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated July 27, 2017
The U.S. Export Control System and the Export Control Reform Initiative, updated July 24, 2017
Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS): OECD Tax Proposals, July 24, 2017
Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated July 25, 2017
Lebanon, updated July 25, 2017
Aviation Bills Take Flight, but Legislative Path Remains Unclear, CRS Insight, July 25, 2017
Military Officers, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017
Military Enlisted Personnel, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017
Transgender Servicemembers: Policy Shifts and Considerations for Congress, CRS Insight, July 26, 2017
Systematic, authorized publication of CRS reports on a government website came a step closer to reality yesterday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve “a provision that will make non-confidential CRS reports available to the public via the Government Publishing Office’s website.”
“Climate Change” Enters the DoD Lexicon
The term “climate change” was included for the first time in the latest revision of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication 1-02), published last week.
Climate change is officially defined by DoD as “Variations in average weather conditions that persist over multiple decades or longer that encompass increases and decreases in temperature, shifts in precipitation, and changing risk of certain types of severe weather events.”
The new entry in the DoD Dictionary reflects a growing awareness of the actual and potential impacts of climate change on military operations.
The definition was originally proposed in the January 2016 DoD Directive 4715.21 on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.
“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” the January directive stated.
Department of Defense Confronts Climate Change
The Department of Defense is organizing itself to address the effects of climate change on the U.S. military, some of which are already being felt.
“The DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military,” according to a Pentagon directive that was issued last week. See Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, DoD Directive 4715.21, January 14, 2016.
Among other things, the new directive requires the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate on “risks, potential impacts, considerations, vulnerabilities, and effects [on defense intelligence programs] of altered operating environments related to climate change and environmental monitoring.”
“The Department of Defense sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk,” DoD said last year in a report to Congress.
“We are already observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, and in the Arctic, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America…. Although DoD and the Combatant Commands cannot prepare for every risk and situation, the Department is beginning to include the implications of a changing climate in its frameworks for managing operational and strategic risks prudently.” See National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, DoD report to Congress, July 2015.
“We are almost done with a baseline survey to assess the vulnerability of our military’s more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities,” wrote then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. “In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years.”
“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” Secretary Hagel wrote.
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” said Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in a 2012 tweet that has been retweeted more than 24,000 times. (h/t Ed Husain)
What to Expect from Paris Climate Talks, and More from CRS
The possible outcomes of the ongoing Paris climate change conference, and the challenges remaining to be overcome, are considered in a new report from the Congressional Research Service. See International Climate Change Negotiations: What to Expect in Paris, December 2015, November 27, 2015.
The shifting numbers of U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years were compiled in another newly updated CRS report. “As of June 2015, there were almost 29,000 DOD contractor personnel in Afghanistan, compared to 9,060 U.S. troops,” the report said. “As of September 2015, there were 1,349 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq, compared with up to 3,550 U.S. troops.” See Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2007-2015, December 1, 2015.
Another CRS report notes that there are currently 53 judicial vacancies in the nation’s 91 judicial districts, and that 25 of those vacancies are considered to be “judicial emergencies.” The situation is described in U.S. District and Circuit Court Vacancies: Overview and Comparative Analysis, CRS Insight, December 3, 2015.
“The federal executive branch controls an extensive real property portfolio that includes more than a quarter of a million owned and leased buildings,” according to another new CRS report. “The cost of operating and maintaining these diverse properties, which total more than 2.8 billion square feet, exceeded $21 billion in FY2014.” See Federal Real Property Data: Limitations and Implications for Oversight, November 25, 2015.
Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has declined to make publicly available online include the following.
Tying Up Loose Ends… Supreme Court To Evaluate Federal Firearm Provision Again, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 3, 2015
College and University Endowments: Overview and Tax Policy Options, December 2, 2015
State Management of Federal Lands: Frequently Asked Questions, November 12, 2015
The Enactment of Appropriations Measures During Lame Duck Sessions, updated December 2, 2015
Courts Grapple with States’ Efforts to Bar Medicaid Funds from Providers that Also Perform Abortions, CRS Legal Sidebar, December 2, 2015
Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): Final Rule for 2014, 2015, and 2016, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015
Doubling Research and Development for Clean Energy: “Mission Innovation”, CRS Insight, December 1, 2015
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): Authorizations of Appropriations Proposed by the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 (S. 2012), November 25, 2015
Multilateral Development Banks: Overview and Issues for Congress, updated December 2, 2015
President Obama’s $1 Billion Foreign Aid Request for Central America, CRS Insight, November 25, 2015
Venezuela’s December 2015 Legislative Elections, CRS Insight, December 2, 2015
Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC): Background and Issues for Congress, updated December 3, 2015
Corporate Expatriation, Inversions, and Mergers: Tax Issues, updated November 30, 2015
The Lobbying Disclosure Act at 20: Analysis and Issues for Congress, December 1, 2015
Federal Reserve: Oversight and Disclosure Issues, updated December 1, 2015
Energy Policy and National Security: The Need for a Nonpartisan Plan
As I write this president’s message, the U.S. election has just resulted in a resounding victory for the Republican Party, which will have control of both the Senate and House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January. While some may despair that these results portend an even more divided federal government with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I choose to view this event as an opportunity in disguise in regards to the important and urgent issue of U.S. energy policy.
President Barack Obama has staked a major part of his presidential legacy on combating climate change. He has felt stymied by the inability to convince Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to mandate substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, his administration has leveraged the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft rules that will, in effect, force the closure of many of the biggest emitters: coal power plants. These new rules will likely face challenges in courts and Congress. To withstand the legal challenge, EPA lawyers are working overtime to make the rules as ironclad as possible.
The Republicans who oppose the EPA rules will have difficulty in overturning the rules with legislation because they do not have the veto-proof supermajority of two-thirds of Congress. Rather, the incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said before the election that he would try to block appropriations that would be needed to implement the new rules. But this is a risky move because it could result in a budget battle with the White House. The United States cannot afford another grinding halt to the federal budget.
Several environmental organizations have charged many Republican politicians with being climate change deniers. Huge amounts of money were funneled to the political races on both sides of the climate change divide. On the skeptical side, political action groups affiliated with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch received tens of millions of dollars; they have cast doubt on the scientific studies of climate change. And on the side of wanting to combat climate change, about $100 million was committed by NextGen Climate, a political action group backed substantially by billionaire Tom Steyer. Could this money have been better spent on investments in shoring up the crumbling U.S. energy infrastructure? Instead of demonizing each side and just focusing on climate change, can the nation try a different approach that can win support from a core group of Democrats and Republicans?
Both Democratic and Republican leaders believe that the United States must have strong national security. Could this form the basis of a bipartisan plan for better energy policy? But this begs another question that would have to be addressed first: What energy policy would strengthen national security? Some politicians, including several former presidents, have called for the United States to be energy independent. Due to the recent energy revolution in technologies to extract so-called unconventional oil and gas from shale and sand geological deposits, the United States is on the verge of becoming a major exporter of natural gas and has dramatically reduced its dependence on outside oil imports (except from the friendly Canadians who are experiencing a bonanza in oil extracted from tar sands). However, these windfall developments do not mean that the United States is energy independent, even including the natural resources in all of North America.
Oil is a globally traded commodity and natural gas (especially in the form of liquefied natural gas) is tending to become this type of commodity. This implies that the United States cannot decouple its oil and gas production and consumption from other countries. For example, a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian Gulf will affect about 40 percent of the globe’s oil deliveries because of shipments from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirate. Such a disruption might occur in an armed conflict with Iran, which has been at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear program. Moreover, while the United States has not been importing significant amounts of oil from the Middle East recently, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea rely heavily on oil from that region. Thus, a major principle for U.S. national security is to work cooperatively with these allies to develop a plan to move away from overreliance on oil and gas from this region and an even longer term plan to transition away from fossil fuels.
Actually, this long term plan is not really that far into the future. According to optimistic estimates (for example, from Cambridge Energy Research Associates) for when global oil production will reach its peak, the world only has until at least 2030 before the peak is reached, and then there will be a gradual decline in production over the next few decades after the peak.1 (Pessimistic views such as from oil expert Colin Campbell predict the peak occurring around 2012 to 2015.2 We thus may already be at the peak.) Once the global decline starts to take effect, price shocks could devastate the world’s economy. Moreover, as the world’s population is projected to increase from seven billion people today to about nine billion by mid-century, the demand for oil will also significantly increase given business as usual practices.
For the broader scope national security reason of having a stable economy, it is imperative to develop a nonpartisan plan for transitioning from the “addiction” to oil that President George W. Bush called attention to in his State of the Union Address in January 2006. While skepticism about the science of climate change will prevail, this should not hold back the United States working together with other nations to craft a comprehensive energy plan that saves money, creates more jobs, and overall strengthens international security.
FAS is developing a new project titled Sustainable Energy and International Security. FAS staff will be contacting experts in our network to form a diverse group with expertise in energy technologies, the social factors that affect energy use, military perspectives, economic assessments, and security alliances. I welcome readers’ advice and donations to start this project; please contact me at email@example.com. FAS relies on donors like you to help support our projects; I urge you to consider supporting this and other FAS projects.