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Yucca Mountain, DOE loans to get close look at Perry confirmation hearing

U.S. Senate lawmakers could probe Energy Secretary-nominee Rick Perry on a wide range of issues during his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, including a possible revival of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage project and the future of the U.S. Department of Energy's loan guarantee program.

The former Texas governor, who, as a GOP presidential candidate in 2011, said he would abolish the Energy Department if elected, could drive a major shift in the department's priorities. For now, however, Perry is busy learning about the department's mission and operations, and lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could press their wishes for the agency at his confirmation hearing.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., may urge support for building the Yucca Mountain repository, a project the Obama administration shelved amid heavy opposition from retired Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and other lawmakers. Alexander, whose state is home to several nuclear plants, will be "very forceful" in his desire to revive Yucca, said Alex McGee, a principal with law firm Dentons' public policy and regulation practice and a former principal deputy assistance secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Energy Department.

McGee said he expects the new administration to give a "pretty hefty look at trying to get Yucca back into the mix," although President-elect Donald Trump has yet to opine on the project. In December 2016, a member of Trump's transition team sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department asking if there were any statutory barriers to restarting the project.

Efforts to resume Yucca Mountain will be heavily opposed by some Senate energy committee members. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who joined the Senate energy panel in the new Congress, has been a fervent critic of permanent waste storage at the Nevada site. Reid's replacement in the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., is also against the project.

The fate of the Energy Department's loan guarantee program for new and emerging energy technologies may also dominate some of the Jan. 19 hearing. Proponents of the program have tried to highlight its successes, but the agency came under heavy fire from lawmakers after the 2011 bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received substantial financial commitments from the department. In the December 2016 questionnaire, the Trump transition team asked for a "full accounting" of the loan program.

"I would imagine that the [program's] critics might be a little bit more forceful" at the hearing, McGee said.

Conversely, Trump's support for the coal industry could lead to the Energy Department providing more funding for advanced coal technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. McGee said Perry may have experience with the loan guarantee program through the agency's involvement with a new CCS project in Texas. McGee did not identify which project, but NRG Energy Inc. and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp. recently finished construction of the Petra Nova carbon capture project south of Houston, which will provide CO2 from an existing coal-fired plant for use in enhanced oil recovery.

Energy bill, uranium surplus

Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., spent much of the past two years working to advance a broad energy bill that died in late 2016 amid policy squabbles with lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives. McGee said the two committee leaders could urge the Energy Department to support some of the measures in the doomed legislation, as well as policies that would benefit Murkowski and Cantwell's respective home states, including funding for cleanup of the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington.

Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, may also inquire about Energy's management of surplus uranium stockpiles. Funds from the program could maintain a cleanup project in Ohio that Portman supports, but Barrasso has criticized the stockpile program due to its impact on domestic uranium mining in the West.

The focus on Energy Department energy and waste storage programs will not likely spare Perry from questions about his broader intentions for the agency.

"We hope Perry was merely placating fringe audiences when he resolved to abolish DOE while running for president in 2011," the Union of Concerned Scientists said. "If he can manage the agency pragmatically and increase his substantive understanding of the agency's work, Perry has a chance to feed off the momentum we're seeing in the private sector around clean energy and keep us on a path to a thriving clean energy economy."

The growth in Texas' economy while Perry was governor and a jump in wind power generation has reassured key Senate lawmakers that he can bring a balanced approach to the Energy Department.

"As a former governor of Texas, Rick recognizes the economic and security benefits of technology innovation and an energy supply that is diverse, reliable, and affordable," Murkowski said.