Leading the News
Utilities And Homeowners Monitor Fuel As Cold Snap Continues.
The New York Times (1/3, Hsu, Subscription Publication) reports that “homeowners, businesses and utilities across much of the United States were keeping a close watch on fuel supplies Wednesday as a record-setting cold snap caused demand for heating oil and natural gas to soar.” Many utilities are opting to generate electricity with oil and coal “as the price of natural gas, their usual fuel of choice,” surges. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration “declared a regional emergency for large swaths of the country, allowing commercial drivers to work overtime delivering propane and heating oil.” Additionally, “Coast Guard ice cutters were working to clear paths for oil tankers and other vessels on the Hudson River and other frozen waterways in the Northeast.”
Reuters (1/3) reports the US energy industry is “facing a massive test of its infrastructure as an intense winter storm roared up the Atlantic Coast, threatening power outages, refinery shutdowns and spikes in heating prices.” The frigid weather “already caused Phillips 66 to shut a crude and coking unit at its Wood River, Illinois, refinery after a line froze followed by a brief fire.” East coast refiners are “bracing for difficulties in the next few days. So far, the five refineries along the East Coast are dealing with frozen pipes and other challenges, but have not experienced any significant outages, according to sources at the plants.”
Bloomberg News (1/2, Malik) reports that “deliveries of the heating and power-plant fuel jumped to 143 billion cubic feet on New Year’s Day in the lower 48 states,” a level that “tops the previous record reached four years ago during the ‘polar vortex,’ which unleashed bone-chilling conditions across the Midwest and Northeast.” As a result, “gas futures have surged,” and, “America’s increasing reliance on gas has stoked speculation that a frigid winter will drain the nation’s stockpiles – already below normal for the time of year – sending prices soaring.” FC Stone Latin America LLC Senior Vice President Tom Saal said, “‘The litmus test for the industry will be the withdrawals’ from gas storage,” adding, “We haven’t seen this kind of demand coupled with incremental new supply.”
Bloomberg News (1/3) also reports in a separate article that the US “power grid is starting to show signs of fatigue as the nation grapples with a record-breaking cold snap.” Some New England power plants “that have been burning oil are running short on fuel, according to Marcia Blomberg, a spokeswoman for ISO New England Inc., the region’s grid operator. Restrictions governing air emissions are also a factor limiting their use.”
Nuclear Industry Touting Role In Keeping Heat Pumping During Bitter Cold. The Washington Examiner (1/3, Siciliano) reports that “during the prolonged cold snap” the nuclear energy industry “is touting its role in providing heat to much of the East Coast and Midwest,” making the case that “its fleet of 99 reactors is helping to moderate electricity prices that are experiencing record highs.” Nuclear Energy Institute Director of Media Relations John Keeley said, “Nuclear power, which produces 20 percent of America’s electricity, moderates the price risk by providing bulk supplies [of electricity] whose cost is not affected by short-term fuel prices.” Energy prices are spiking “because of the pressure on the nation’s natural gas supply, which has become a dominant fuel for power plants over the last three years.” Greenwire (1/3, Subscription Publication) reports the Nuclear Energy Institute has “reported all 99 of the nation’s reactors are running, hailing it as an ‘incredible but unsurprising testament’ to the industry’s reliability and resilience, all while moderating electricity prices.”
Utilities And Homeowners Monitor Fuel As Cold Snap Continues. The New York Times (1/3, Hsu, Subscription Publication) reports that “homeowners, businesses and utilities across much of the United States were keeping a close watch on fuel supplies Wednesday as a record-setting cold snap caused demand for heating oil and natural gas to soar.” Many utilities are opting to generate electricity with oil and coal “as the price of natural gas, their usual fuel of choice,” surges. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration “declared a regional emergency for large swaths of the country, allowing commercial drivers to work overtime delivering propane and heating oil.” Additionally, “Coast Guard ice cutters were working to clear paths for oil tankers and other vessels on the Hudson River and other frozen waterways in the Northeast.”
NYTimes Analysis: Link Between Climate Change And Cold Snap Is Uncertain. The New York Times (1/3, Fountain, Subscription Publication) reports that “some scientists studying the connection between climate change and cold spells, which occur when cold Arctic air dips south, say that they may be related.” However, “the importance of the relationship is not fully clear yet.” “There’s a lot of agreement that the Arctic plays a role, it’s just not known exactly how much,” said Marlene Kretschmer, a researcher with Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “It’s a very complex system.”
ED Considering Higher Standard For Loan Relief For Defrauded Students.
Politico (1/3, Stratford) reports that according to a draft proposal, ED “is considering a significantly stricter standard for when federal student loan borrowers defrauded by their colleges can have their debt forgiven” featuring “a higher burden of proof” and the requirement that students “individually present evidence that their college’s deception was intentional.” Politico says this proposal is in line with ED’s past messaging that “it thinks ‘borrower defense to repayment’ regulations finalized by the Obama administration made it too easy for borrowers to claim they were defrauded and obtain loan forgiveness. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the policy allowed student loan borrowers to access ‘free money’ from the government.”
NPR (1/3) reports ED “has been making incremental moves toward watering down the policies for months,” but the new draft proposal “lays out the administration’s new vision, which places a higher burden of proof on students seeking to obtain debt forgiveness and requires applicants to individually present evidence that their college’s deception was intentional.” This piece reports DeVos “convened a special committee” to rewrite the borrower defense rule in June, “saying the regulations are ‘overly burdensome and confusing’ and need to be streamlined.”
The Wall Street Journal (1/3, Hackman, Mitchell, Subscription Publication) reports that the proposal fits in with the Trump administration’s broader push to reduce regulation across the public sphere. This piece points out that the proposal could undergo revisions before being changed and would affect students who take out loans starting in July 2019.
Inside Higher Ed (1/3) reports that student advocates say the policy “would effectively mean no borrowers are able to get relief on their student loan debt through a provision of federal statute known as borrower defense to repayment.” This piece explains that after Corinthian Colleges Inc. imploded in 2014, ED responded to “a surge of borrower-defense claims” by establishing “a new rule that provided a federal standard for loan relief and clarified how borrowers could pursue their claims.” BuzzFeed (1/3) also covers this story.
Warren Seeks Probe Into ED’s Plan To Use SSA Data To Determine Student Loan Relief.
Politico (1/3, Stratford) reports Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is calling on ED’s Office of Inspector General to investigation whether the department “is ‘misusing’ federal earnings data to calculate how much loan forgiveness to give defrauded students.” Politico notes that ED recently announced “a new system for resolving ‘borrower defense’ claims that will grant only partial relief to some defrauded borrowers” based on earnings data obtained from the Social Security Administration. Warren “on Tuesday asked the inspector generals of the Education Department and Social Security Administration whether the Trump administration violated an information-sharing agreement between the two agencies governing the use of the federal earnings data.”
The GoLocalWorcester (1/3) reports that ED “plans to use federal earnings data produced from federal tax records to calculate limited relief for defrauded student borrowers under its Borrower Defense authority.” However, “the information exchange agreement explicitly and exclusively allows the data to be used only for the Gainful Employment Rule, and makes no mention of using it for Borrower Defense purposes.” Moreover, Warren has obtained emails indicating that “SSA staff have serious concerns about the legality of the Department’s current plan for use of the data.”
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Research and Development
Researchers Employ Satellites To Predict Cholera Outbreaks.
Scientific American (1/3, Derouin) reports researchers are using satellites to predict cholera outbreaks, as evidenced by a May 2017 study in Yemen. The piece says the researchers “ended up predicting an outburst that spread across the country in June” using “a handful of satellites to monitor temperatures, water storage, precipitation and land around the country.” The team “predicted areas most at risk for an outbreak over the upcoming month,” and later found “an epidemic occurred that closely resembled what the model had predicted.”
Group Of “Citizen Scientists” Discovers Unique Star.
PBS NOVA (1/3) reports that a group of a dozen amateur scientists “helped discover a peculiar star called KIC 8462852...with the relentless, unprejudiced curiosity that comes naturally to amateurs.” The piece explains that the star “dims suddenly and erratically, unlike any other star known to science. Astronomers have even floated the idea that it is surrounded by a colossal solar-energy-harvesting ‘megastructure’ built by advanced aliens.” The article points to new research on the star in the Astrophysical Journal and relates “the story of how amateurs helped discover the strangest star in the galaxy—and why citizen scientists might be the x-factor in many more discoveries to come.”
MIT Researchers Develop “Wearable Robots.”
CBS News (1/4) reports about the research at MIT on “a ‘soft,’ wearable robot that could turn us all into cyborgs.” Not only “light and flexible” but “also two to three times stronger than a human being,” the flexible robotic systems would also have AI capabilities. CBS News also reports on skepticism of existing image recognition software and AI algorithms, citing examples where researchers have “tricked” computers into seeing potential threats, like a gun, as benign, and vice versa.
NASA-Led Team Helps Optimize Methane Emission Estimates.
ExecutiveGov (1/3, Adams) reports that a research team “led by scientist John Worden of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has helped optimize the accuracy of estimated increases in methane emissions through a new study.” NASA “said Tuesday that methane emissions have been rising since 2006, but researchers’ explanations for the increase showed ‘irreconcilable’ differences.” Worden’s team sought to understand the variance “by studying emissions from global fires since these events have declined each year in the early 2000s and during the period from 2007 to 2014, NASA noted.” The team used carbon monoxide and methane data from the NASA Terra and Aura satellites, which “revealed that fire emissions of methane have been decreasing faster than expected.” Worden’s team “concluded that the annual 25-teragram increase in methane emission is comprised of 17 teragrams of fossil fuel-driven emissions and another 12 teragrams from wetlands or rice farming, while fires are decreasing by approximately 4 teragrams every year.”
NSA Losing Skilled Employees To Private Firms.
A video on the Washington Post (1/3) website reports that since 2015, “the NSA has lost several hundred hackers, engineers and data scientists” amid growing competition from defense contractors and start-ups in Silicon Valley.
Engineering and Public Policy
Lawmakers Introduce Measures To Address Lack Of Women In Aviation.
Aviation International News (1/3, Lynch) reports that Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a measure last month called the “Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act of 2017, which urges industry to ‘explore all opportunities, including pilot training, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, and mentorship programs, to encourage and support female students and aviators to pursue a career in aviation.’” The bill also “directs the FAA to establish a women in aviation board to support organizations and efforts to foster women’s careers in aviation.”
EPA Hopes To Soon Finalize Clean Power Plan Replacement.
The “Morning Energy” blog of Politico (1/2, Adragna) reported officials with the Environmental Protection Agency “are hoping to finalize a narrow replacement to the Clean Power Plan quickly enough to ensure that the Trump administration gets to defend it as the regulation winds its way through the courts.” Promised public comment opportunities “on the regulation’s withdrawal in San Francisco; Gillette, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo. are not yet on the calendar even as the Jan. 16 comment deadline approaches. But Democrats are trying to use climate change and the environment as a wedge against the Trump administration, as attorneys general in New York, Delaware and Maryland hold their own hearings next week.”
Trump Administration To Unveil Proposal To Auction Offshore Drilling Rights Across U.S. Waters.
Bloomberg News (1/3, Dlouhy) reports that the Trump administration is set to release a proposal in the coming days seeking to auction off oil and gas drilling rights in the Arctic Sea, Atlantic Ocean, eastern Gulf of Mexico and possibly Pacific Ocean region. The proposal “dovetails the wishes of oil industry leaders who lobbied the Interior Department” to open access to the Atlantic Ocean to complement existing oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposal would “flout the wishes of the governors of North Carolina and Virginia,” who have openly opposed offshore drilling, as well environmentalists in California, where there has been opposition to offshore drilling since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
FERC Deadline Looms For Decision On Perry Grid Propsoal.
In “The Energy 202,” the Washington Post (1/3, Grandoni) reports the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “has until Jan. 10 to decide whether to finalize an electric grid plan that would reward facilities capable of keeping 90-day fuel supplies on hand – effectively, those plants powered by coal or uranium. The plan emerged from the Energy Department after its contested study examining whether the grid could withstand the retirement of aging coal-fired and nuclear power plants.” The article adds that after “initially giving the independent agency only 45 days to rule,” Energy Sec. Rick Perry “begrudgingly extended the deadline to mid-January at the request of FERC’s new chairman, Kevin McIntyre.” The Post writes the “entire energy industry, save coal and nuclear, thought the Trump administration was asking the regulatory agency to decide too hastily, given the viability of electricity markets hung in the balance.” Yet, “coal boosters seem to be preparing for the plan to fail.”
Politico (1/3, Adragna) reported the “final action” may “take one of several forms – technical conferences, a new proposed rule, requests for information etc. – and recently minted FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre expects the agency to meet its new Jan. 10 deadline.”
Foreign Solar Panel Manufacturers Increase U.S. Inventories In Anticipation Of Possible New Tariff.
The Wall Street Journal (1/3, Tangel, Subscription Publication)reports foreign manufacturers of solar panels and washing machines are increasing exports of their products to the U.S. over concerns that the Trump administration may soon enact trade tariffs against their industries. November Imports of solar panels and associated items more than doubled over the previous year since two bankrupt U.S. solar panel manufacturers began lobbying the government for the trade restrictions.