Transportation, biomass, carbon offsets -- these were just some of the policy overhauls discussed this morning at a Senate Environment and Public Works committee hearing on energy and climate policy.
Responding to an early question about international climate agreements, from ranking minority member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said that "the race is on for us to enter into a clean energy future. There's technology in this country that can be use to move markets here and abroad, and create jobs."
Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) focused on transportation policy. "Looking at improving the quality of life in America...one area where we're out of step with much of industrial world is transportation."
From an environmental perspective, responded Ms. Jackson, transportation accounts for around 20% of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). That comes from people who, often because they have no choice, commute primarily by single person automobile.
Any opportunities to change that would not only be a crucial part of "cracking the nut" on lowering GHGs, she said, but would cut other forms of noxious air pollution as well.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted that in just one arena, long distance freight hauling, improving mass transportation could have an enormous impact on the nation's oil dependency. "For every metric ton of freight, [you get] 700 mpg if you use a train...trucks cannot get there," he said, and would be better devoted to local delivery use.
Secretary Chu also agreed with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that nuclear power could play a role in cutting the nation's carbon emissions. Under carefully worded prompting from Sen. Alexander, Mr. Chu agreed that the nation's nuclear plants and military nuclear-power submarines are being operated safely; that carbon is the principal greenhouse gas; that coal plants contribute somewhere in the vicinity of 40% of the nation's GHGs; and that nuclear energy, while producing 20% of the nation's power, produce about 70% of the nation's carbon-free energy.
Sen. Alexander noted that renewable energies are providing only 6% of the nation's carbon free energy by comparison, suggesting that nuclear needs a lot more attention from the Obama administration. (This bit of sophistry obscured the fact that the current share of renewables is much smaller than the nuclear power footprint, making it hard to compare the two on straight percentages.)
"From me, you're not going to get any reluctance" about nuclear energy, said Sec'y Chu. The Department of Energy is pushing hard on loan guarantees, and bettering technologies, he said.
"Nuclear power -- what's the reluctance?" asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), echoing an earlier question from a colleague. "Nuclear waste is highly toxic; we don't know how to get rid of it!" (Perhaps Sen. Alexander's Tennessee constitutents would want to store it, he suggested, or those of other nuclear-promoting senators on the panel.)
Less-contentious forms of low- and no-carbon power got a lot of air time as well. Sen. Sanders, addressing Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, said that there were a dozen solar thermal plants on the drawing board, ready to go, for the Southwest. "I hope we're ready to entertain such projects," said Sanders.
Sec'y Salazar answers that the nation has the potential to reduce use of coal for power by 29% with solar thermal. He expects to see around 14 solar power plants under construction on public lands by the end of 2010. "Those alone will create some 50 thousand jobs," he said. "That's just the beginning."
Noting the growth in use of wood pellets for heat in Vermont, Sen. Sanders queried Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the potential for biomass energy. Sec'y Vilsack agreed that biomass represents a major opportunity for expansion of bio-energy. The energy title of the 2008 farm bill provides grant money for woody biomass opportunities, he stated, as does the stimulus act.
Responding to questions from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Secretary of Interior Salazar suggested that 500 million acres of forest under Interior Dept. management offered a lot of potential to create jobs in rural communities around biomass energy, as well as greenhouse gas offsets. "As we look at legislation for energy and climate change, we should consider how offsets would encompass public lands, including those in Oregon," he said.
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, whose agency encompasses the US Forest Service, agreed that forest management practices needed to change to reflect present needs and conditions -- seeming to suggest some balance between harvesting timber and preserving forests for other economic values might be achieved.
"The USFS is putting together new strategic vision," said Sec'y Vilsack, for managing and operating forests with climate change and conservation of Western water supplies in mind.
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