Wednesday, August 10, 2005

New energy law limits public's say in decisions

http://www.sltrib.com/ci_2928033

A day after President Bush signed into law the sweeping Energy Policy Act, environmental and citizen activist organizations continued their angry denouncements of the bill they say is a multibillion-dollar giveaway to wealthy energy companies undeserving of taxpayer subsidies.
But those who want to speak out against the new law may be in for a shock: Its provisions include new limits on public participation in energy-related decisions, alterations of clean water law and pre-emption of states' rights when it comes to building electricity transmission lines and liquefied natural gas port facilities.
In short, the activists say, oil, coal and nuclear interests win while American consumers and the environment pay the price.
A statement endorsed by the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, the National Audubon Society, the National Environmental Trust, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society and U.S. Public Interest Research Group declared the bill "a miserable failure" that doesn't meet America's 21st century needs.
Even Bush acknowledged that the bill, touted as a way to American energy independence, would not give consumers any relief at the gas pumps even as the bill allows some of the biggest oil companies huge subsidies during a time they are reporting record profits.
The bill includes $14.5 billion in incentives, but the true cost is more than $20 billion because the law includes a tax credit for nuclear power that is worth $6 billion, said Anna Aurilio, Washington, D.C.-based legislative director for U.S. PIRG.
Tax breaks for renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean vehicles totaled $5.3 billion. But the $3.2 billion for renewable energy, an extension of an existing production tax credit mostly geared toward wind energy, now includes subsidies for geothermal, biomass, hydropower and development of coal on Indian tribal lands.
"Obviously coal is not renewable in any sense and hydropower can have [environmental] problems," Aurilio said. And with just 26 percent of the subsidies going toward nontraditional energy, renewables are at a disadvantage, she said.
The bill gives nuclear power $7.3 billion in tax breaks, including a 20-year extension of limits to the nuclear industry's liability in case of an accident.
That's an unacceptable handout for a mature industry, said Salt Lake City activist Jason Groenewold, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.
"By promoting a resurgence of nuclear power, we only ensure that more dangerous waste will be produced with no place to go except for the politically marginalized places like Utah and Nevada," he said.
The bill alters the National Environmental Policy Act to allow the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to take shortcuts when granting permits for oil and gas drilling and essentially cuts the public out of the process, said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"The BLM is already handing over public lands faster than the industry can drill," he said. "This
legislation is more about increasing oil company profits than creating energy."
Late last month Exxon Mobil announced a 32 percent second-quarter boost in profits. Royal Dutch Shell's profits were up 34 percent, British Petroleum's 29 percent and ConocoPhillips, 51 percent.
The bill's subsidies include $6 billion to convert coal to electricity and provides federal loan guarantees to build at least 16 new coal-fired power plants.
Tim Wagner, who directs the Smart Energy Campaign for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said with coal-fired plants contributing to global warming, those provisions "show where big money can dictate against the interests of the rest of the global population.
"They do not need loan guarantees to build new coal-fired power plants," Wagner said. "The hypocrisy of this industry is just so incredible. They have fought for less regulation yet they want taxpayers' money to build these expensive plants. That's just immoral."
The bill also repeals the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, a New Deal reform aimed at protecting consumers from market manipulation, fraud and abuse in the electricity sector.
"Repealing it will now leave electricity customers vulnerable to some of the shenanigans we saw with Enron in California, and it will allow foreign companies to own utilities," said U.S. PIRG's Aurilio.
Ken Hurwitz, former executive director of the Maryland Public Service Commission and an energy expert for Haynes and Boone, LLP, one of the largest corporate law firms in the country, said PUHCA, as the law was known, was a major impediment to investment.
Its repeal will spawn a tidal wave of new gas and electric utility acquisitions and mergers, such as Warren Buffett's proposed acquisition of Utah Power's parent company PacifiCorp, Duke Energy's proposed merger with Cinergy and American Electric Power's acquisition of Central and Southwest - "a good thing," Hurwitz said during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
Hurwitz also extolled the bill's provisions that enable the federal government to trump states, local governments and communities that have objected to electric transmission lines and liquefied natural gas terminals, which coastal cities have resisted due to safety concerns.
"The policy perception is we need more natural gas supplies coming into the country," he said.
Groene said he hoped that the bill, as bad as it is, is a pendulum that has swung as far out of bounds as possible. As people become more informed, they might be willing to fight it. "Citizen involvement is what brings the pendulum back," he said, "which is a little bit difficult since this legislation limits their ability to be involved."

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