Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM

Mr. Kevin Curtis


Testimony of Kevin S. Curtis
Senior Vice President for Programs
National Environmental Trust
Submitted to
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
October 6, 2005


Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify in front of this committee.  I first worked with this committee in the mid-1970’s when I was a very young political appointee at the newly created Department of Energy representing the Carter administration to Congress during the debate over the Synfuels Corporation, Windfall Profits Tax Act, Energy Mobilization Board and the various other titles of that decade’s comprehensive energy package.  Every decade since then, I have observed and/or participated in the renewed efforts at setting national energy policy by the administration and Congress.  I have drawn as much from that experience as from my current position with the National Environmental Trust for this testimony.  

The National Environmental Trust is a non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1994 to inform citizens about environmental problems and how they affect our health and quality of life. NET's public education campaigns use modern communication techniques and the latest scientific studies to translate complex environmental issues for citizens. Furthermore, NET works in states across the country to localize the impacts of national problems, as well as to highlight opportunities for Americans to engage in the policymaking process.  Energy policy has been an important area of focus for NET since its inception because of its far reaching implications for the environment.
Katrina is certainly among the worst environmental catastrophes to befall our country and its citizens.  The human toll is tremendous and the physical damage is only now starting to be truly catalogued and understood.  In other words, it is much too early to make definitive statements about the ultimate scope of this disaster.  That said, part of my charge for this testimony was to address the environmental impacts of the storm, which I have tried to do below with an eye towards our nation’s energy infrastructure and policies.

I would also like to make three energy policy points in my testimony today.  First, a focused commitment to energy efficiency and conservation is the most effective and least utilized option available to this country to deal with the short and long term energy issues facing us.  Second, waivers of existing law, including environmental statutes, are not a trivial exercise.  The cacophony of waivers being proposed for post-Katrina energy infrastructure building and rebuilding efforts are neither necessary nor justified.  Third, don’t jump on the “Energy Bill II” mentality that seems to be driving much of the current debate in the House of Representatives.  

Brief summary of the Environmental Impact of the Hurricanes
As noted above, Katrina ranks as one of the nation’s largest environmental catastrophes due to natural disasters.  I have listed below a few statistics and anecdotes designed to help convey the scale of its impact:

• At least seven million gallons of oil were spilled from known, identifiable sources.   Estimates add another one to three million gallons from disparate sources.  By way of comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill released 11 million gallons. 

• Early estimates of the amount of debris to be disposed of range up to 100 million cubic yards.  Such an amount would be enough to cover 1,000 football fields 50-feet deep in waste. 

• Up to 350,000 automobiles are estimated to have been ruined due to the flooding.

In the flood’s aftermath, the primary threats to public health are posed by exposure to pollutants and toxic materials in the air, soil, water as well as the general muck being cleaned up.  These pollutants come from a wide variety of sources, including energy production, refining and infrastructure facilities. 

Another potentially major source of pollution seems to be the sediments from the bottom of various lakes, canals, and other waterways that were stirred up and distributed by the flood waters.   A considerable amount of pollutants appears to have been stored in these sediments. 

A future potential source of pollutants and toxics is likely to arise from the ultimate disposal of the debris from the storm.  Early estimates of this waste are simply mind-boggling.  Whether it is burned or buried, there are major environmental and public health implications and concerns that must be factored into the upcoming disposal decisions.

Given this tremendous amount of uncertainty, it strikes me that the most prudent course of action by the government is to spend a considerable amount of time and resources sampling and monitoring the environment in New Orleans and the rest of the impacted Gulf region.  Furthermore, there is clearly a need for this monitoring to be done in as transparent and inclusive a manner as possible, so that all the citizens of the region can feel comfortable with the conclusions.  The EPA and CDC have considerable experience through the Superfund and other programs in involving impacted citizens and communities in the monitoring of their immediate environment for toxic and chemical pollutants.  Such a monitoring effort must also take into account the environmental justice concerns due to the demographics of those left most vulnerable by the region’s prior chemical and petroleum industry development.

Environmental or ecological issues

In addition to the storm’s well publicized impact on wetlands and the general consensus that rebuilding and restoring the wetlands is an important part of preparing for the future, the impact on the region’s fisheries is also starting to emerge.  Just this week, NOAA’s Fisheries Service declared a fishery failure for Texas and Louisiana following Hurricane Rita, with a similar declaration made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina extending from Pensacola, Florida to the Texas/Louisiana border.  This disaster declaration authorizes assistance to assess the impacts and assist fishermen, but we have yet to determine the extent of the storms’ impacts on the marine ecology of the Gulf.
There are high levels of bacteria present in the water, and testing continues to determine the extent to which oil and other toxics may be impacting Gulf fisheries.  Because some pollutants accumulate in sediments or are persistent and tend to build up over time, it may be months before we are aware of the full impact on the marine species in the region.  

Only extensive long-term monitoring will ensure that we have the most accurate assessments, and it is critical that Congress considers the cost of monitoring and assessment programs on NOAA’s budget, particularly in light of the budget cuts proposed for NOAA in the House version of the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill. 

The Promise and Potential of Energy Efficiency and Conservation

I will not attempt to recreate in my testimony all the information, arguments and policy proposals in support of energy efficiency and conservation that have been provided to this committee during the past five years of congressional debate on energy.  (Instead, please find attached a reasonably thorough review of  recent recommendations by a variety of groups focused on energy efficiency and the environment.)  Rather, I would like to underscore the rather remarkable political situation we find ourselves in today, where the entire range of stakeholders in energy policy seems to be in agreement about the need for conservation and an increased focus on energy efficiency.  Just this week, the nation’s leading newspapers printed full page advertisements from the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron Oil Company and other major players in the oil and gas industry extolling the virtues of conservation.  On Tuesday, a headline in the Washington Post business section announced, “White House Renews Call for Conservation.”  Senators Domenici, Bingaman and others on this committee have all issued public statements over the past month noting the importance of energy efficiency and conservation.     This is the moment in time to actually turn the promise of energy efficiency and conservation into reality. 

Beginning today, you can accomplish this by using the authority of this committee to educate the rest of Congress, the press and the public about the immediate gains available from increased efficiency and conservation.  For the longer term, you can pursue and build the legislative record and political support necessary to establish additional incentives for the adoption of energy efficiency and conservation policies.  As you well know, the most fundamental challenge facing efficiency and conservation is that the powerful array of energy suppliers tend to view energy efficiency as a revenue loser even though our nation’s consumers and businesses would benefit from it.   And while I certainly appreciate and applaud the fact that oil companies and their trade association are preaching conservation, I would not expect their shareholders to encourage them to stay with that position for an extended period of time.  After all, they are in the business of producing and selling oil and natural gas.

A very concrete way in which this committee can help promote energy efficiency is to hold the US Department of Energy accountable for it’s track record on energy efficiency.  Recent PR efforts notwithstanding, the department’s track record is rather poor in this area.   Examples include: 1) the department has so lagged in implementing the appliance efficiency standards that it’s being sued, 2)  just last week, the DOE supported rolling back energy efficiency standards for new building construction and 3)  the department was stopped from rolling back efficiency standards for air conditioners only by court order.  I would be much more optimistic about its recent commitment to energy efficiency if its leadership were to announce a large scale public education campaign at the funding levels authorized by the energy bill and it planned to hire the additional staff necessary to finalize the pending appliance efficiency rules.

It is one thing for the administration to opposed regulations for energy efficiency on philosophical grounds.  Yet its record on energy efficiency technology R&D is also disappointing.  EOS’s FY 2006 budget request for spending is significantly lower than the amount authorized by the new energy bill.   In order to take advantage of the unique political opportunity facing them, congress and the administration must pursue an aggressive agenda to expand the pipeline for new energy technologies that represent the real and long-term solutions to our energy problems.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for increased efficiency from our automobile and truck fleets.  Transportation accounts for approximately 70% of our nation’s oil use, and it is a national embarrassment that we have not significantly adjusted CAFE standards for close to 20 years.  Not only will adopting significantly higher fuel efficiency standards help consumers at the gasoline pump, but it will contribute to our national security by reducing our reliance on imported oil.  Moreover, there is ample evidence to suggest that adopting these technologies is also key to the survival of the U.S. auto industry.  I have attached a recent NET-sponsored study documenting the potential employment gains available to the domestic industry by producing more fuel efficient vehicles.  Now is the time for Congress to exert leadership on this issue.

Concerns about H.R. 3893 bill and the larger issue of environmental waivers

The House of Representatives is scheduled to consider this coming Friday, a bill, H.R. 3983, that passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee last week.  This bill, and its companion from the House Resources Committee, represent a blatant attempt by the chairmen of those committees to exploit the genuine public concerns about high gasoline prices following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to pursue legislative goals that were rejected just months ago in the House-Senate energy conference committee process.  Fortunately, the Resources Committee bill has already run into political difficulties in the House, as 25 of the 27 members of the Florida delegation objected to the offshore drilling provisions contained in the legislation.  Unfortunately, HR 3893 appears to be moving ahead.  While I have attached a detailed critique of the legislation by the environmental community for your review, I would like to touch upon a few of the more objectionable aspects of this legislation in hopes of convincing the Senate to avoid its pitfalls. 

Key criticisms of H.R. 3983

1. Backers of the bill often suggest that environmental regulations are to blame for our current shortfall in refining capacity.  This premise is flawed.  The U.S. is facing limits on its refining capacity largely because over the past few decades the refining industry has been a mature, low profit-margin business.  Consequently, it was significantly more profitable to consolidate operations and increase the output at existing refineries than to build new refineries.  The attached fact sheet documents the industry’s success at increasing production while at the same time reducing the number of refineries.  It is clearly time for industry to build new refineries, and there is no doubt that oil companies have the financial resources to build new, state-of-the art facilities while complying with all applicable laws.

2. The environmental waivers contained in the bill are too broad and pose a significant public health risk.  For example, the delays contained in Section 109 (Attainment Dates for Downwind Ozone Nonattainment Areas) will result in the following additional public health problems, according to Abt Associates, EPA’s leading air pollution consulting firm.  For each year of delay, the nation will experience an additional:
• 387,000 or more asthma attacks
• Almost 4,900 hospitalizations due to respiratory distress
• 573,000 missed school days
3. The legislation would also essentially eliminate the New Source Review program for up to 20,000 facilities (Sec. 106); undermine the diesel rule that was successfully negotiated between the Bush administration, diesel engine manufacturers and the environmental community several years ago (Sec. 108); and arbitrarily limit the number of cleaner burning, boutique fuels to six (Sec. 108).

Congress should not rush into a “National Energy Policy II”

Less than three months ago the President signed the National Energy Policy Act of 2005 into law.  This legislation took over five years to pass and contains a wide range of provisions designed to promote the oil, gas, coal and nuclear power industries.  It also contains a major new initiative for biofuels, but provides far less support for renewables and energy conservation.  According to a recent report I read, the legislation contains over 500 congressionally mandated deadlines for everything ranging from studies to regulations.  Nothing in these 500 directives or the legislation as a whole, however, would meaningfully increase in fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, establish a renewable portfolio standard or address global warming.  I raise this not to cover old ground but rather to point out a new opportunity.  The ink is not even dry on the latest national energy plan and nothing I have seen indicates that the political dynamic has changed for the very important but politically difficult issues that did not make it into the national energy plan, with one key exception – energy efficiency and conservation.


Energy efficiency and conservation are now “in.”  It would be a major contribution by this committee to our nation’s future if you were to focus your  prestige and political strength on ensuring that this attention is not fleeting and that meaningful commitments to energy efficiency are actually adopted.

Thank you.

Policy recommendations in support of energy efficiency and conservation
• American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (separate document “ACEEE Katrina White Paper)
Collected in “Enviro Katrina Energy Conservation”
• Alliance to Save Energy
• Natural Resources Defense Council
• Union of Concerned Scientists
• Sierra Club

Criticisms of H.R. 3893
• NET Fact sheet on HR 3893 (separate document)
Collected in “Local Organization Opposition to HR 3893”
• National Conference of State Legislatures Letter
• National Association of Counties Press Release
• National League of Cities Press Release
• National Conference of State Legislatures, US Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, International City/County Management Association, and the Council of State Governments Letter

Editorial Board Opinion on Energy
• Editorials Supporting Conservation and Fuel Efficiency
• Editorials Opposing Reckless Energy Policy