During the congressional recess in February, Representative Costello held two telephone town halls where he answered questions from constituents. He then released a special edition of his weekly newsletter, “Ryan’s Report: Asked and Answered”, where he addressed some of the most common questions that came up during these meetings. The Indivisible Chester County Research Committee has drafted a point-by-point response to his comments on the Environment/Climate Change/Clean Energy Innovation.


Rep. Costello: I was born and raised around here [the PA-6 Congressional District], I lived right next to French Creek. I care about the environment and I try to not see it as a political issue.


Research Committee: It shouldn’t be a political issue, but it is. Many companies and industries put money above environment at every opportunity in the name of profit. The only thing to stop them are laws and a strong EPA to enforce those laws. Those same companies lobby and contribute funds to Congress to advocate for removal of the laws and weaken the EPA.


Rep. Costello: Climate change, I believe the issue is real, I believe we need to focus on reducing carbon emissions.


Research Committee: We need to do more than focus on reducing carbon emissions. We need to reduce carbon emissions now. We are running out of time and getting close to the tipping point when it will be too late for action. In Nature Communications report on February 24th, 2017, an Anglo-French team of scientists predicted that the Atlantic Ocean has a 50% chance of cooling down within the span of a decade before the end of the century. This is dramatically worse than previous scenarios. A cooler ocean leads to a slowing down of the Gulf Stream which will cause massive changes to the climate since the Gulf Stream is responsible for adding warm water to the Global Conveyor Belt. The one recurring theme in climate change research is that these changes are taking place even faster than we thought possible. According to the EIA, Pennsylvania is the 3rd largest producer (by state) of CO2. Our state should be working to reduce these emissions.


Rep. Costello: I am one of 12 republicans that signed on to that climate change resolution, I was one of the founding members of the Climate Solutions Caucus.


Research Committee: Thank you for signing the resolution and also for your work on the caucus.


Rep. Costello: The EPA, I believe, serves a vital function in our country and while there are times where they may issue a rule I disagree with, I’m not going to [vote to] eliminate the EPA. I’ll continue to try to be a responsible voice for environmental protection … [there is a] bill by some Member of Congress that proposed to abolish the EPA and I don’t support that. I just don’t. So I hope that gives you a flavor of how I feel about the EPA.


Research Committee: The biggest threat to the EPA is the Trump administration. At CPAC, Scott Pruitt said those that wanted to see the EPA eliminated are justified because under the Obama administration it was too focused on climate change and “we don’t know” how much of an impact humans are having on climate change. In Pruitt’s address to EPA staff, who have spent decades protecting our environment, he focused more on jobs, industry and the market place than the environment and never mentioned climate. The mission of the EPA is simple, “To protect human health and the environment, air, water and land”. Under the new budget it’s facing huge cuts. If you really believe in the EPA, you will vote against these budgets cuts. Also under Pruitt’s leadership the EPA is expected to begin rolling back regulations at a frightening rate.


Rep. Costello: I believe that wind has its place and has great potential as does solar. Wind and solar are playing an increased role but are still below 10% and it’s very difficult to see a scenario where they get higher than that, particularly in the near future. You’re only going to get so much out of your clean energy portfolio with them.


Research Committee: The roles of wind and solar are still very much below 10%. Renewables (solar, wind, biomass, hydro) are at a staggering 4.75%. Wind and Solar are somewhere between 1.5% and 2%. This figure is shameful. The Pennsylvania Alternative Portfolio Standard requires 18% of electricity to come from approved renewable or alternative sources by 2020. Nothing happens without political will.


Rep. Costello: You do need a nuclear, and again, that is much different today than the massive Limerick power plant options from yesteryear. The next generation of nuclear does not look like the Limerick power plant, it would be much smaller in scale but that is the cleanest energy that we have.


Research Committee: There are three phases to nuclear power: the building phase, operation and eventual decommissioning. New generation plants currently look just the same as older plants, in fact, two plants currently being built in the US (Vogtle 3+4 GA and V.C Summer 2+3 SC) are the same size as Limerick.

Building Phase

  • Vogtle was budgeted at $14 billion when building commenced in 2013. Current estimates say it could top $21 billion by the time it comes online in 2019-2020. “The new units at Vogtle will be uneconomical when or if they are complete” – John Rowe, Former Chairman and CEO of Exelon.
  • V.C Summer was budgeted at $9.8 billion when building started in 2013. Now it is closer to $14 billion by the time it comes online in 2020.

Consumers that get their electricity from nuclear plants would see an extra fee tacked onto their energy bills to cover the cost of construction. The US is not the only country that has found that nuclear construction and budgets nearly always go up. This has been the case in many nuclear projects worldwide.

What many people don’t know, is that because of a lack of long term storage or reprocessing facilities in the US for spent fuel rods, they are mainly stored on-site in water filled storage pools. These spent fuel rods are highly radioactive and require constant cooling. The storage ponds were never designed for long-term storage and the amount of spent fuel rods has increased. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized power plant operators to increase the number of rods being stored by up to five times what the storage ponds were designed to hold. This is clearly a safety and security issue so the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized the use of dry storage for older, less radioactive spent rods to free up space in the pools for newer ones.

When a nuclear plant is at the end of its life, it needs to be decommissioned. All Nuclear plants are required to have a trust fund to cover the cost of decommissioning. You’re paying for this too in your monthly electric bill. The fun is taxed, so the government takes 20% of it.


Rep. Costello: The amount of coal we use is diminishing, but natural gas continues to increase, and that has largely attributed to why we have reduced emissions since 2007.


Research Committee: Natural gas releases less CO2 than coal (just over ½ of the amount) but it is not a long-term solution to climate change. In the short to medium term, switching out coal for gas is to be applauded. There is still a lot of controversy concerning the fracking process to gain access to the natural gas. Some countries, such as Ireland, have banned or halted fracking over concerns of the environmental risk. Here in the United States, it’s practically impossible to find out what is in the fracking fluids used. The 2005 Energy Policy Act excluded fracking fluids from the Clear Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Waters acts.


Rep. Costello: Carbon capture technology particularly as it relates to coal is extremely important. If you look at carbon capture technology, while it’s not totally commercially viable, it does trap the carbon from the certain carbon emitting technologies such as coal and one thing to note is that ¼ of all energy in PA comes from coal.


Research Committee: Commercial viability is up in the air on the process of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). One of the key conditions is that the CO2, once captured, needs to be stored or sold. Unless a power plant is close to a storage area or a target industry, the cost becomes prohibitive. Building new plants is also extremely expensive.

Consider the case of Petra Nova in Texas. The profit from capturing and selling the gas relied on oil staying above $75 a barrel but as of 3/1/2017 the price is $56 a barrel. The Texas Clean Energy Project was budgeted at $1.9 billion but the projected cost ended up being $3.98 billion. The DOE pulled out of the project and many are doubtful it will ever be completed.

In Kemper County, MS the budget increased from $2.2 billion to a staggering $7.1 billion for a new plant. Although the plant is operating, it’s not apparent if they are capturing CO2 yet. They are supposed to supply the oil industry so it will be interesting to see if lower oil prices have an effect on the capture part of the process.

A new plant in Boundary Dam, Canada opened to great fanfare in 2013. By 2015 major problems were reported. Again, the CCS process relies on selling CO2 to oil fields and low oil prices have hurt its operation.

Retrofitting existing power plants with CCS technology is also expensive. The actual process can consume up to 25% of the power station output. For example, Schwarze Pumpe Power Plant in Germany was retrofitted in 2006. By 2014 the operators had discontinued all research into CCS as the costs and energy required made it unviable. Earlier in 2013, Germany abandoned CCS entirely.

There were four CCS retrofitting projects in the UK. As of 2015, the withdrawing of government funding had stopped all four. These plants relied on pumping CO2 into used oil wells in the North Sea.


Some ideas on how we can become greener and lower our emissions


Firstly, we have to acknowledge that unless we drastically cut carbon emissions, we are facing an environmental catastrophe. We don’t have a choice, we need to act now.

Coal needs to be taken out of the equation as quickly as possible, and most importantly, we need to ensure that job losses in this area are more than made up by new jobs in clean technology. Texas has between 24,000 and 25,000 people working in Wind Power alone. According to the EIA, there were 6,633 people working in coal mining in 2015 (down from 7,938 in 2014).

A ramp up of wind power, solar and biomass jobs could be used to fill the loss of mining jobs. Are we doing anything to find these hard-working Americans new jobs? Tax incentives and grants could be awarded to companies willing to locate where these jobs are being lost.

Coal fired power stations could possibly be converted to burn biomass. It should be noted that many of the existing PA coal fired stations are old and not economic. This coupled with the abundance of cheap gas, is killing the coal industry. CCS is not going to save coal, it’s going to increase the cost and make it less competitive.

According to a 2015 report by Penn Future, in 2012-2013, fossil fuels in PA got subsidies of $3.2 billion.

Natural Gas
Natural gas is an important short to medium term tool in reducing carbon emissions but it’s a finite resource. Although it releases less CO2 than coal or oil, it’s still releasing carbon into the environment. We don’t want to go down the road of trying to make CCS work with gas next in order to keep it in the mix. It’s also a fossil fuel so is included in the $3.2 billion subsidy.

This option should be abandoned due to the cost overruns, incredibly long time to build and no coherent strategy or plan on dealing with waste as outlined above.

Our renewable figures are a disgrace. We are not getting enough out of our renewable portfolio. The three main renewable sources (wind, solar and biomass) are not even close to what they could produce.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, Pennsylvania is a leader in manufacturing wind turbines but our installed generation capacity is 1,369MW. This is equivalent to one medium sized power station. Twenty six facilities exist statewide, employing between 1,000 and 2,000 people. We need subsidies at the moment to ensure the industry grows. We could use some of the $3.2 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to subsidize wind energy.

The Alta Wind Energy Centre in California generates nearly 1,600MW of energy which is more power than the whole of PA.

A mixture of large and small installations would make a huge difference. We also need to think out of the box on wind power. A startup in Scotland is proposing small turbines that can be attached to existing lamp posts. A survey of lamp posts in the UK suggests that 20% of an estimated 10,000,000 lamp posts are suitable.

Biomass seems to be very underutilized. It’s an essential tool in the race to meet emissions targets. Full or partial conversion of existing coal and oil fired power stations (along with retooling to make them more efficient) would be a great way forward. Drax power station in West Yorkshire in the UK has carried out an enormous amount of retooling and conversion to Biomass. This has resulted in a 40% lowering of emissions. Of 6 generating plants, 3 are now running on biomass which is partially harvested and manufactured through their facilities in the United States. Sixty-five percent of their power is now generated from biomass. They also utilize the by-product from the plant to produce gypsum. Drax was one of the 4 abandoned CCS projects and the move to biomass was largely driven by moving away from burning coal.

Finally, solar power is another very important power source. We generate around 300MW of power from Solar and the industry employs 3,021 people in 2016. Prices have dropped by 64% in the past five years. Costs will come down, employment will go up, emissions will go down if we invest in more solar! Again we need to embrace rather than talk down solar.

This article was put together by the Indivisible Chester County Research Committee with contributions and edits by JoEllen McBride, Ph.d.