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Groups Seek To Restructure DOE

Environmental and energy innovation advocates are recommending that the Department of Energy (DOE) significantly restructure in order to better support new energy technologies, including shifting nuclear weapons and cleanup responsibilities to EPA and other agencies and reorganizing its offices based on energy uses rather than sources.

The April 3 report, authored by the Clean Air Task Force and the Energy Innovation Reform Project, finds that DOE “continues to underperform against expectations” despite billions in stimulus law funding, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and other efforts and programs to improve the department's performance.

“[W]e do believe that government can play a vital role in catalyzing technological innovation in the future, as it has in the past. The key to progress, and the overarching spirit of our recommendations, is to ensure that the goals and technical milestones of government-assisted energy research and development are established not by elected officials and political appointees but by scientists and engineers working in collaboration with private-sector energy technology providers,” the report states.

The report was issued days before Ernest Moniz, the Obama administration's nominee to lead DOE, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing, where he did not address calls for wholesale reform but promised a series of changes to how the department is managed. For example, he told Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who asked about ways to advance a smart grid, that he wanted to work differently with energy laboratory directors “so that they are engaged more in the strategic decisions about where we all go together.”

Discussion of possible reforms could also occur in the context of a looming debate over DOE's fiscal year 2014 budget, which the Obama administration unveiled April 10. The Senate energy committee is slated to hold a hearing on DOE's budget April 18, but an agenda for the hearing has not yet been released.

The report recommends that DOE take a number of steps to better focus their efforts to advance energy technologies, including moving nuclear weapons programs to the Department of Defense and environmental cleanup efforts to EPA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “DOE uses contractors to manage and conduct cleanup activities. EPA or the Army Corps can easily do the same,” the report says, adding that the Army Corps “has experience performing environmental remediation, including projects involving radioactive contamination.”

If EPA were to become responsible for cleanups, the report notes that “[EPA] might gain a richer, first-hand perspective on the costs and benefits of its own regulations, leading to more practical, realistic approaches to regulating environmental cleanup. Some may argue that EPA should not be allowed to regulate itself in these projects. There are multiple checks and balances, however, to protect against the danger of an unaccountable EPA. In addition to congressional and presidential oversight, affected States and other parties will retain access to judicial review and remedy should a situation arise where EPA’s applications of its rules for its own cleanups are less rigorous than what it requires for others.”

The report also suggests that DOE restructure its offices, arguing that its current setup “stovepipes” applied energy programs by technology and thereby promotes “factionalism rather than focusing on innovation that meets America’s energy needs.” Instead, DOE should consolidate its office and focus more on “energy end use rather than primary energy source," creating offices of power and grid technologies, transportation and fuel technologies and advanced energy efficiency technologies.

The outlook for implementing the recommendations remains murky, with the groups acknowledging that any reform efforts could span several administrations. But DOE has already taken some steps toward eliminating stove-pipping in its energy program, with DOE officials recently touting a plan to create a new transportation office within its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Department officials have said the move will help better coordinate and prioritize research and development programs for biofuels, electric vehicles and other advanced technologies.

Elsewhere in the report, the groups recommend that DOE should adopt new methods for supporting “first-of-a-kind” commercial demonstration projects like the carbon capture and sequestration project FutureGen 2.0, finding that “ DOE has proven itself to be virtually incapable of executing” such projects. And the report faults DOE's "micromanagement" of its national labs, saying the department “should evaluate the labs on their progress in overcoming technology challenges and other strategic outcomes, ending its micromanagement."

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DOE Nominee Wins Broad Support But Faces Calls To Fix Hanford Cleanup

Ernest Moniz, President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Energy (DOE), appears likely to easily win confirmation after committing to address concerns from key senators over the department's massive environmental cleanup program, especially contamination at the Hanford site in eastern Washington state.

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Just-Cleared EPA Radiation Guide Seen Aiding McCarthy's Nomination

After nearly two years of review, the White House has cleared EPA to issue a controversial draft guide for protecting humans from nuclear power plant meltdowns and other radiological incidents, a move that environmentalists say could be timed to win support from Republicans for Gina McCarthy's nomination to lead EPA because the guide, which she oversaw as head of the air office, opens the door to weakening Superfund cleanup levels.

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DOD Sees Few GHG Impacts From Fuel Contracts, Easing Way For Tar Sands

The Defense Department (DOD) has concluded that its fuels purchases are not causing significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or other adverse impacts, after narrowly examining the direct impacts of the purchases and rejecting environmentalists’ calls to broadly factor in GHG emissions from crude oil extraction through combustion.

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High Court Weighs Standing To Target Programmatic Environmental Reviews

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could limit citizens' standing to challenge agencies' environmental impact reviews of broad, programmatic actions, just as the Senate begins to weigh a bill that would require EPA and other agencies to expand their use of such programmatic environmental impact statements (EIS).

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EPA Delays Key Drinking Water Rules Over Lingering Science Questions

EPA is delaying key drinking water policies, including its pending health goal for perchlorate and a determination whether to regulate hexavalent chromium (Cr6), until officials can resolve questions related to the contaminants' pathways and other scientific issues, according to Peter Grevatt, director of EPA's Office of Ground Water & Drinking Water.

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DOE Seeks Renewable Funds

The Department of Energy (DOE) in a new guidance is seeking to increase private investment to help fund development of renewable energy on federal facilities, stating that improving processes can allow federal workers, project developers and financiers to work “in a coordinated fashion on large-scale renewable energy projects.”

DOE says the guidance, “Developing Renewable Energy Projects Larger Than 10 MWs at Federal Facilities: A Practical Guide to Getting Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects Financed with Private Capital,” is meant to help meet a number of goals for renewable deployment on federal facilities, including a Defense Department plan to install 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military bases by 2025.

“This Guide acts as a first step in facilitating the process of financing certain types of large-scale renewable energy projects by beginning to translate the differences in language and by mapping a process that is grounded in the foundations of commercial project development while integrating traditional Federal methodologies. An organizational framework, evaluation process, and sample tools are provided for Federal employees seeking to benefit from or gain insight into private development methodologies,” the guide says.

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SAB Prepares To Review Perchlorate Report

EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) is preparing to review the latest draft of its perchlorate panel's report on the agency's pending drinking water goal for perchlorate, paving the way for the agency to release the delayed proposal.

The board March 6 released the panel's report and has announced that it will review the report on a March 29 conference call. The essentials of the latest draft of the report, underway since last July, appear to have changed little from the last draft the panel discussed in December.

Reversing a Bush administration decision, former Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in February 2011 that EPA would regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

The determination set in motion a statutory two-year clock; under the Safe Drinking Water Act EPA had -- and missed -- its February 11, 2013 deadline to release its draft Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG). The law requires the agency to set this health goal that forms the basis, together with cost and technical feasibility analyses, for a future drinking water standard, known as a maximum contaminant level (MCLs).

EPA's most recent regulatory agenda, released in December, indicates that agency staff plan to release the proposed rule next December.

Should EPA finalize the goal to an enforceable drinking water standard, it would represent the first time the agency has added a new MCL since the SDWA was revised in 1996. Perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient that also occurs naturally in certain soils, inhibits normal human uptake of iodine which can lead to irregular thyroid function.

Before EPA can release its draft MCLG, SAB must complete its report and submit it to the agency, and a small business panel review of the proposal is required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) of 1996.

The law requires EPA to notify the Small Business Administration (SBA) of a pending proposed rule that could have economic impacts on small business, and a review panel of EPA, SBA and White House representatives must gather input from small business representatives and write a report on the proposal before EPA publishes it.

Last month, a source at a federal agency said “there has been no news in months on scheduling” the small business panel review of the proposal. At press time, there was no record of a perchlorate SBREFA panel on SBA's website.

As in previous drafts, the SAB panel recommends that EPA adopt a novel approach to setting the perchlorate MCLG, one based on the use of a pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic (PBPK/PD) model rather than using EPA's traditional algebraic formula. The approach is intended to better reflect the risk that perchlorate exposure presents to fetuses' and infants' proper development, as they are most susceptible to the potential developmental effects of altered thyroid function.

The recommendation complicates the agency's path, not only because it steps away from the usual method of calculating an MCLG, but also because the SAB panel acknowledges that the model is not as complete as they would like. The report provides short-term recommendations on how best to use the model to set an MCLG with the existing model and data, and in the longer-term, how they would prefer to set the standard using ongoing extensions to the model.

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After Sequester, Congress Seeks To Bolster DOD's FUDS Cleanups In FY13

House and Senate appropriators are seeking to boost funding for the Defense Department's (DOD) formerly used defense sites (FUDS) cleanup program, which has long been criticized for having a backlog of cleanups, by $50 million above the president's fiscal year 2013 request, though the funds would be trimmed slightly to account for the sequester.

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Amidst Review, EPA Scientists Defend Finding On TCE's Heart-Defect Risks

In the midst of an EPA headquarters review, EPA and other government scientists are rallying behind the agency's recent risk finding that exposure to the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) causes cardiac birth defects, saying in a series of recent publications that the evidence of such risks is "strong" or has been "confirmed" by recent science.

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