This Week in Science Policy: March 2018 3.2 Edition

This week in Science Policy, Secretary Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to discuss the upcoming 2019 fiscal year budget for the Department of Energy (DoE). Secretary Perry highlighted on several topics, including the need to enhance the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, strengthening the energy grid through cybersecurity defenses, and addressing the nuclear waste generated from the nation’s nuclear reactors.

Rick Perry
Secretary Rick Perry

In his testimony, Secretary Perry has outlined several initiatives that he wished to focus on at the Department of Energy. One of those initiatives is the strengthening of the nuclear arsenal. The new budget calls for a 16.7 percent increase ($2.2 billion) to rebuild the nuclear arsenal, in conjunction with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and to enhance  the capabilities of preventing nuclear proliferation. Finally, this increase calls for the focus to apply a long-term strategy for the Navy’s nuclear propulsion systems.

Due to recent attacks on the energy sector, Senator Murkowski was interested to learn what the DoE was doing to protect the energy grid from cyber attacks. Secretary Perry detailed in the upcoming FY 2019 budget, that the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability to create two new offices, the Office of Electric Delivery and the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER). Since the DoE is the sector specific agency responsible for the energy grid, CESER would play a vital role in the cyber threat’s that have plagued the United States in recent years. Secretary Perry acknowledged the issues regarding cyber attacks to the energy grid, including those used by Wannacry, and highlighted how CESER would play a vital role in protecting the energy sector.

Finally, the Secretary Perry was questioned by Senator Cortez Masto on the focus of Yucca Mountain, the resting place of nuclear waste material. Senator Cortez Masto sent a letter to Secretary Perry about how she was concerned about how the funds, for Yucca Mountain, would be used in FY 2019 and where was the Trump Administration in their effort to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain. Currently, Yucca Mountain has been designated as the likely place to host the nation’s nuclear waste, but because of concerns to being able to safely host this material, the process has been delayed for years. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future put forth several suggestions on how to manage the ongoing issue. One of the main issues is that spent fuel was being stored at the sites where they are generated, and not at a central location, costing the taxpayer billions of dollars. Secretary Perry agreed to review Senator Cortez Masto’s letter regarding the issue at  Yucca Mountain.

In addition, Secretary Perry had to offer insight into new legislation, proposed by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, named the Small Scale LNG Access Act of 2017 which sought to amend the Natural Gas Act to allow the export of 51.1 billion gallons of natural gas. Senator Cassidy highlighted how this fuel was being bought by countries, within the Caribbean, to bring cleaner fuel to those energy markets. Senator Cassidy inquired upon Secretary Perry if this law would impact energy markets at home and would it be beneficial to the economy. Secretary Perry did not believe that the law would impact the natural gas economy, since the Caribbean’s energy need is only 1.2 % that of the United States, and that it would be a beneficial job creating mechanism for the natural gas industry. In addition, Senator Cassidy also highlighted that the current fuel used by these countries, such as oil from Venezuela, causes more harm than using natural gas. It is estimated that by passing the Small Scale LNG Access Act, it could lead to a reduction of 26 million tons of C02 each year.

During the hearing, numerous Democratic members on the committee expressed concerns with the cuts being proposed for the FY 2019 budget. During her opening remarks, Committee Ranking Member Senator Cantwell, outlined how she was concerned about the cuts being made to the DoE and how the administration was not using its scientific resources in making decisions. Senator Cantwell expressed a desire for the Trump Administration to make science a larger priority. In addition, Senator Cantwell expressed concerns about how the increased funding for CESER would be enough to tackle the cyber threat. She was very persistent in obtaining an answer from Secretary Perry as to whether he had a risk assessment to use when making these budget decisions.

Overall, the hearing highlighted the numerous ongoing efforts in the Department of Energy to secure a sustained energy sector, enhancing the nuclear arsenal, and asking questions on how to handle the Yucca Mountain crisis. While the FY 2019 budget proposed has not been finalized by Congress, it does give an indication on where the Trump Administration wishes to move with their energy portfolio. If you are interested in viewing this hearing, please following the link for more information.

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