Hick’s newest Blue Ribbon Commission on fracking may be recipe for non-action
Author: Miller Hudson - August 15, 2014 - Updated: August 15, 2014
I own cookbook that offers the best Blue Ribbon recipes from state fairs across America. It serves as my go-to guide when attempting to prepare a dish for the first time, or when neighbors dump garden bags of parsnips and rutabagas on my porch. Seeing as how a jury has awarded these recipes a first prize, I can count on a quality meal that will please even the most finicky gourmands. They usually generate compliments; I need only faithfully execute the winner’s instructions.
Not so much for Blue Ribbon Commissions. Defined by the Free Dictionary as “An independent and exclusive commission of non-partisan statesmen and experts formed to investigate some important government issue,” its mere formation signals a failure of democracy more than a failure of leadership. By way of example, let’s examine the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which submitted its report to the President in January of 2012 regarding the management of the “back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.” Are you wondering what that means? Try “How should we dispose of our nuclear trash, particularly the high-level spent fuel rods from commercial power reactors?
Are you surprised to learn we are still debating this question nearly half a century after the first nuclear power plants came on line? Truth be told, this is the sixth (some argue the seventh) Presidential Commission to report on the issue. Nearly $10 billion of taxpayer money has been squandered on studies without a gram of spent nuclear fuel having been moved from nuclear power plants. Each new administration and its newly appointed Commission have reached essentially the same conclusion: a stable, impervious geological formation that hasn’t evidenced movement or intrusion for the past few hundred million years should be selected for geological isolation of wastes. Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, German, French and Japanese legislators have all successfully authorized just such a disposal facility.
Of course selecting a permanent burial site means locating it near someone. The original recommendation, developed during the 1970s, identified Texas, Michigan and Nevada as preferred hosts. The politically weakest candidate and the geologically most questionable recommendation was Yucca Mountain, outside of Las Vegas, located on the U.S. military’s nuclear weapons test reservation. The Senate vote was 98-2. I’m sure you can guess where those two ‘no’ votes came from. Problem solved, right? Yucca Mountain looks like the backside of the moon. Even if there were a handling accident, how much damage would actually be done? In Nevada, however, a unified, bi-partisan resistance has simmered ever since.
Utilities have collected a special tax for decades to finance an eventual repository, so there have been plenty of dollars available to keep on studying the problem. Recently a federal court suspended this surcharge at the request of electric utilities because of the Department of Energy’s failure to show progress. Meanwhile Nevada’s political clout has grown, as Las Vegas became the nation’s largest tourist Mecca. GPS locators were placed on the shells of desert tortoises long before iPads were attached to tortoises in Aspen and called performance art.
Billions have been spent on environmental studies characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. All for naught, as an earthquake flattened one of the research buildings and water was discovered to be percolating through the volcanic tuff. “No problem,” claimed the Department of Energy. Solution? Convene another Blue Ribbon Commission and then another. More acronyms: NIMTOO (not in my term of office) and BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone). And then Harry Reid, now President of the U.S. Senate talked his buddy, the President of the United States, into torpedoing Yucca Mountain once and for all (maybe).
Miraculously, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant finally opened after two decades near Carlsbad, N.M., as a repository for the low-level wastes produced by the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Until this past year, its success tempted many into considering the option of tossing our high-level wastes into the same hole — although New Mexico was specifically assured this would never be permitted. Another 98-2 vote could solve that problem. Then a barrel of waste from Los Alamos exploded or leaked underground and radioactive isotopes were detected on the surface. Oops! At least all of Colorado’s Rocky Flats waste made it to Carlsbad before this accident, which has closed the facility until a Blue Ribbon investigation is completed.
Presidential Nuclear Waste Commissions have been consistently appraising the wrong problem. How to dispose of waste was never the issue. Where to put it was. By contrast, legislatively created commissions have enjoyed somewhat better success. Following the conclusion of the Cold War, Congress authorized military base closure commissions to select facilities for decommissioning where recommendations could not be amended, but would be subject to a simple up or down vote. That worked reasonably well.
Our Governor is about to empower his second Blue Ribbon Commission on fracking. This is a proposition where 10 things may happen, and nine of them will likely terminate in a dead end just like the last time. Both houses of the Legislature probably have to remain in Democratic hands; the Governor needs to be re-elected; and the Commission recommendations have to please environmentalists, oil and gas operators, local governments, and regulators. That sounds simple, doesn’t it? As long as we are tackling these issues, we should look at Colorado’s severance tax structure as well. The public purse receives less for the permanent depletion of this mineral resource than in any of our sister states, most of which are heavily Republican. Of course a tax increase would require voter approval, but this seems the time to ask.
Despite threats from the oil and gas industry to drill elsewhere should fracking regulations increase, the companies seem to be making money in Wyoming despite far heavier levies. In the final analysis we all know the oil and gas boys will drill where the shale is. That means they will continue drilling in Colorado. (And, it’s not like higher education couldn’t use additional dollars. But that doesn’t appear to be on this Commission’s agenda.) It appears a smoke and mirrors charade premised on the demeaning assumption that voters are too lazy to demand that candidates explain where they will stand on local control — but rather will huddle like cattle in a thunderstorm, milling in dazed stupefaction at the awesome competency of Blue Ribbon annointees crafting silver bullet solutions. I wouldn’t count on that!
Miller Hudson is a political affairs consultant. He served in the Colorado legislature and is the former executive director of the Colorado Association of Public Employees. He can be reached at email@example.com.