The House Science, Space and Technology Committee is known for its partisan bickering. Under Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Republicans opened probes into federally funded climate scientists that Democrats have derided as politically motivated witch hunts.
But the panel showed a rare bit of bipartisanship during a hearing Tuesday with Democrats and Republicans generally uniting in opposition to a Trump administration proposal to cut funding for a high-risk, high-reward international research project into a carbon-free form of energy — nuclear fusion.
The United States is collaborating with five nations and the European Union to conduct the largest fusion experiment ever, agreeing to pay for one-eleventh of the cost of a fusion reactor being built in southern France called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.
But the White House’s proposal of $75 million to fund the megaproject in fiscal 2019 falls far short of that pledge.
The United States needs to spend at least $213 million in cash and equipment to maintain the scheduled contributions to ITER, Smith said Tuesday. ITER spokesman Laban Coblentz said by email that figure “corresponds to the projected needs.”
“Reducing annual funding will only delay ITER instruments being built here in the U.S. and cause construction delays that increase overall project cost,” Smith said.
Even with House backing, the fate of U.S. funding for ITER remains uncertain. While in years past House Republicans and the Obama administration supported funding ITER even as it faced cost overruns and schedule delays, Senate appropriators, led by Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.), agitated to terminate funding.
The difference now is President Trump, whose administration will have to decide whether to back this energy-related international agreement, unlike it did with the Paris climate accord. Currently, the Trump team is reviewing all civil nuclear energy activities, including ITER.
Over the past half-century, the Energy Department has poured billions of dollars into nuclear fusion research, all without yet producing a reactor that put out more energy than it put in.
The prospect sounds like it’s from science fiction: With the new technology, someday theoretically we’ll be able to power cities with miniaturized suns. Made hot enough for long enough, hydrogen atoms can fuse together to form helium, like in the center of stars, releasing in the process a tremendous amount of energy.
Yet the huge magnetic containers and superpowered lasers necessary to bring hydrogen to that state are expensive. Energy efforts at fusion research are littered with half-done studies and never-realized schemes, constrained by budget cuts during President Ronald Reagan's tenure and former speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) time running the House.
The upside, if the technology works: Fusion could provide nearly unlimited power from a plentiful fuel with little or no nuclear waste and zero atmosphere-warning emissions.
Or as Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) put it Tuesday: “The potential benefits to society from a fusion reactor are beyond calculation.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the No. 2 Democrat on the committee, echoed that sentiment. “Given the huge potential benefits of developing a viable approach to fusion energy, I believe this is an area where we should strongly investing in,” Lofgren said. “Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing in the Department of Energy’s recent budget request.”
After the United States signed a pact to start ITER in 2006 under President George W. Bush, some members of Congress worried other countries would back out of their commitments to fund the project.
A dozen years later under another Republican president, it’s the United States that is in danger of reneging on its pledge.
“A shortfall in contribution of any single member,” Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, told Congress, “will have a cascading, strong effect in delays [and] cost.”
Bigot said later in an interview with The Washington Post that unless the United States ponies up by June, he will have to inform the other member nations that ITER will be delayed again.
"Clearly, we put the project in danger," he said. "Everybody has to understand, if the U.S. doesn't comply, it will be all the other six members which will be blocked, with overcosts for them." ITER is scheduled to produce its first plasma by 2025.
The ITER leader raced through Washington this week on a whirlwind lobbying tour, speaking to officials at the Energy and State departments and at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (which still has no leader) in addition to testifying before the Science Committee. Bigot said he was optimistic after talking with the Trump administration officials.
Concern about ITER, which is plagued with the ballooning costs and delayed schedules that have afflicted other fusion projects and caught the eye of auditors at the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014, colors some on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
“Controlled fusion to produce electricity has been an elusive goal sought for 50 years,” said Matthew McKinzie, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit group. “While ITER may have promise as a plasma science research facility, it isn't plausible as an economic energy source that can scale up to address climate change.”
“I’d love to believe in the dream of fusion energy. I’d love to believe that,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the only member of the House science panel to voice frustration over the United States funding ITER. “But we know with the expenditure of that kind of money that we’ve spent on fusion energy, we could have developed fission energy alternatives that are for sure — not just computer models.”
And crucially, Alexander, chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, has unsuccessfully moved to pull the United States out of ITER at least twice before, even though Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his state of Tennessee hosts the U.S. ITER office.
In the past, House lawmakers had the Obama administration on their side, even if the United States over the past three years has actually been short on its ITER contributions. James W. Van Dam, acting associate director of the Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, told the House science panel project is currently under review in the Trump administration, but that the project "has the potential to contribute to American energy dominance."
Van Dam, a career official, added: "I think we need to stay in the ITER project."
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— Another exit: President Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn announced he will resign from the administration amid an internal clash over the president’s trade policy decisions. “Cohn plans to stay in his job for several weeks and continue to push back on Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which have threatened to touch off a global trade war,” The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker report. (Read more on the fallout from Cohn's announcement from Tory Newmyer in The Finance 202.)
The White House loses two things with Cohn's departure: Its highest profile voice pressing Trump to both stay in the Paris climate accord and keep out of a trade war. Reuters reports Cohn's pending departure triggered "a more than 1 percent fall in S&P 500 futures in early Wednesday trade. Crude oil futures followed suit."
— Man hired to sweep Scott Pruitt’s office for bugs is in business with a top EPA security official: Two Senate Democrats, Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), are asking Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to explain how a business associate of his top security official was granted a contract with the agency.
Pruitt's head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, advised EPA officials to hire Edwin Steinmetz, a member of the management team at a security company he runs, according to an administration official who spoke to The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency decisions. Steinmetz completed a "roughly $3,000 contract to sweep Pruitt’s office for concealed listening devices."
— Meanwhile at the EPA: The agency has dismissed a civil rights case from residents of a small predominantly African American town in Alabama who said a landfill has been causing physical and mental illness. The agency said there is “insufficient evidence” officials in the state violated the Civil Rights Act by allowing the landfill, which contains heaps of coal ash, to operate near Uniontown. “Uniontown has been framed by advocates as one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the US, where a largely poor and black population has had a polluting facility foisted upon it with little redress,” the Guardian reports.
— “Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway:” Some GOP lawmakers in Utah want to honor President Trump with his own road for the decision to shrink two national monuments in the state. The proposal, written by Utah Rep. Mike Noel (R), would put the president’s name on the Utah National Parks Highway, 631 miles of scenic roads, The Post’s Meagan Flynn reports. It cleared the state's House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee on a party-line vote Monday.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jim Dabakis (D) threatened to attach an amendment in the Senate that would rename the frontage road that runs along the highway the “Stormy Daniels rampway.”
— The birds, again: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke argued wind power is contributing to global warming and that turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds. “We probably chop us as many as 750,000 birds a year with wind and the carbon footprint on wind is significant,” Zinke said during an address to the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston.
Both claims were overstated, Time magazine reports. “Spread out over the life cycle of a typical turbine, scientists estimate that the typical wind plant generates between .02 and .04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Even at the high end, that’s less than 3% of the emissions from coal-generated electricity and less than 7% of the emissions from natural gas-generated electricity.”
Time also notes that “scientific studies peg the actual number of bird deaths as anywhere from 20,000 to 573,000 a year, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that it’s around 500,000.”
— Give us more time: Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), sent a letter to Zinke this week calling for an extended comment period on the Trump administration’s proposed five-year offshore drilling plan. The comment period is scheduled to end Friday. “Given the large scope of the Draft Proposed Program, we believe a 60-day extension of the deadline for comments is necessary to allow for more public hearings in coastal areas and to give the public sufficient time to submit comments,” the letter reads. “There should be more meetings in coastal communities, large and small, in all areas included in the proposal.”
— A new plan to save coal: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is calling for the development of new coal power plants that would produce more electricity from less coal, the Houston Chronicle reports. The new plants would be paid for under Energy’s proposed 2019 budget, which calls for an 80 percent cut from the more than $196 million budgeted by Congress last year for research and development for carbon capture.
— Floridians, check your drivers' licenses: Here’s how America’s flood insurance chief says you can decide whether to buy insurance if you are a homeowner in Florida. "If it says Florida, you need flood insurance," Roy Wright, who leads Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, told the Miami Herald. "It may be more helpful than trying to find the right map," which Wright explained can potentially mislead homeowners.
— Meanwhile, up north: As the New England coast is preparing to face another major winter storm this week, a new study finds Americans are at a much higher risk from flooding than official estimates let on. The research, published in Environmental Research Letters this week, reveals the United States population exposed to major flooding is “2.6–3.1 times higher than previous estimates,” Vox reports.
— “It’s always good news when you find new penguins:” Researchers found a previously unknown supercolony of Adélie penguins near Antarctica, the New York Times reports. "After several years of preparation, a team of researchers traveled in 2015 to the Danger Islands near the Weddell Sea to do a more precise count on the nine-island archipelago. Using a drone doctored to work in the extreme climate of the region, the researchers were able to get a precise estimate of the numbers of breeding pairs of Adélie penguins in the region: about 750,000 (or 1.5 million individuals)… The greater numbers will help ensure that conservation efforts focus on keeping them safe."
— How American steelmakers survived without Trump’s help: The steel industry in the United States has been surviving on its own, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Andrew Van Dam report, thanks to productivity advances and cheap natural gas and gas-fired electricity. And although Trump says his decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum is in part due to the decrease in jobs, that slide has been a result of advances in efficiency.
— Energy milestone: The United States now has the capacity to store a billion watts of power for one hour, and may double that this year. That’s according to GTM Research and industry trade group Energy Storage Association, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports, adding that such a milestone for energy storage is a good step for solar energy because it can expand the availability of an energy source that would otherwise be available only during daylight hours.
— Utilities knew of big problems with nuclear project but didn't tell customers: Newly released communications show months into the building of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, the South Carolina utilities tasked with the project had detailed concerns to Westinghouse “about cost overruns and design delays that put ‘potentially unrecoverable stress’ on the construction schedule to add two nuclear reactors,” per the Post and Courier. The issue, according to the report: Westinghouse told the companies to keep the public in the dark.
— “Not the silver bullet:" Through the CERAWeek conference, fossil-fuel chief executives are "dumping on electric cars," Bloomberg News notes. Saudi Aramco's Amin Nasser said "many wrongly believe that it is a simple matter of electric vehicles quickly and smoothly replacing the internal combustion engine." BP's Bob Dudley sees “tremendous” opportunities around electric cars but adds they are “not the silver bullet that everyone’s looking for.”
Total's Patrick Pouyanne, meanwhile, said he's actually driving one.
- CERAWEEK energy industry leaders’ conference continues.
- The House Science, Space, Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of transportation fuels and vehicles.
- The Cleantech Group holds a conference on biotech and sustainability on Wednesday.
- The Blockchain in Energy Forum will be held on Thursday.
- R Street, Texas Clean Energy Coalition and The American Conservative hold an event on “How market driven clean energy is transforming the Texas electric grid tickets” on Thursday.
— Storm watch: There are 36 million people are under winter storm warnings as another massive storm system moves into the Northeast, from Philadelphia north to the Canadian border, per Matthew Cappucci for The Post.