Energy nominee likely to face questions on Yucca

Mark W. Menezes has said the administration plans to store nuclear waste at the Nevada site, contradicting a White House budget proposal

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., is a strong opponent of storing nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., is a strong opponent of storing nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 20, 2020 at 6:00am

A Senate panel on Wednesday will consider the promotion of an Energy Department official who publicly contradicted the president over Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste depository in Nevada, to the No. 2 job at the department.

Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes told lawmakers in February that the Trump administration planned to store nuclear waste at the Yucca site, remarks that directly contradicted what the White House proposed in its 2021 fiscal budget days before.

That nuclear waste questions will emerge at Menezes’ hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee seems likely. The panel includes Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., a strong opponent of Yucca.

In the administration's proposed DOE budget, President Donald Trump did not propose funding to license the facility. Trump proposed licensing Yucca for nuclear storage every other year he’s been in office.

Menezes is scheduled to appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday afternoon for his confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary, the first hearing the panel has held in weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If confirmed, he would fill a vacancy left by Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, whom Trump nominated to the top position after Rick Perry, the former Republican governor of Texas, resigned in December.

The Senate confirmed Menezes, a former energy lobbyist and staffers to congressional Republicans, by voice vote to be under secretary in November 2017.

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After the White House proposed on Feb. 10 halting the licensing process to store nuclear waste within Yucca Mountain, Menezes appeared to reverse that position, telling members Feb. 12 on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee the administration planned to store radioactive material at the site.

“What we’re trying to do is to put together a process that will give us a path to permanent storage at Yucca,” Menezes said, acknowledging opposition from state officials in Nevada. “It will be a difficult way to go.”

Asked by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., a sponsor of legislation to use Yucca, how the department planned to get support from states over storing waste, Menezes said “interim” storage — the idea of assembling a site to gather spent nuclear fuel from power states before shipping it to Yucca — was one possibility. “It’s going to be some of the things in your bill,” Menezes said to McNerney.

Lobbying

Menezes was a registered lobbyist as recently as January of 2017, when he represented Berkshire Hathaway Energy. He has also lobbied for the utilities Southern Co., Duke Energy and American Electric Power and dozens of other corporate clients when he worked at Hunton & Williams, a Richmond, Va.-based law firm.

As chief counsel to the Energy and Commerce Committee during the George W. Bush administration, Menezes crossed paths with Brouillette, who worked for former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., then the chairman of the committee.

Brouillette came under fire this week for comparing banks’ decisions not to lend money to oil and gas companies to “redlining” — the practice of denying loans based on borrowers’ racial background or their neighborhood.

"For years and years and years, banks would not lend money, insurance companies would not write policies in minority areas in the country,” Brouillette told news website Axios in an article published Monday. “Redlining is the term used all throughout those debates. We didn’t want banks redlining certain parts of the country. We don’t want that here. I do not think banks should be redlining our oil and gas investment across the country."

Wall Street banks like Morgan Stanley have recently retreated from financing certain more expensive oil and gas projects, including in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northern coast and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“The denial of loans and mortgages through systemic racism is not remotely the same as sensible, free market decisions not to invest in the destruction of the wildest place left in America,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, which opposes oil and gas activity in the refuge.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called on Brouillette to resign. “Out of touch doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he said.

DOE did not respond when asked if Brouillette would retract his remarks.