Upton’s Energy Work Starts at Home

Fred Upton's energy focus starts well before he gets behind his committee desk.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Oct. 20, 2013, 8:07 a.m.

It seems fit­ting some­how that what may be the only con­gres­sion­al dis­trict that has faced oil spills, nuc­le­ar leaks, and threats from in­vas­ive spe­cies is the one held by Rep. Fred Up­ton, R-Mich.

Up­ton, the chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, has rep­res­en­ted his south­w­est Michigan dis­trict since 1987. And while he’s held the chair­man’s gavel only since 2011, he fought his share of en­ergy battles well be­fore that, many of which he at­trib­utes to dis­trict con­cerns.

“[Loc­al] is­sues drive my pri­or­it­ies in terms of what I care about,” Up­ton said. Left un­said is that his pri­or­it­ies tend to drive House policy-mak­ing on en­ergy-re­lated is­sues.

Up­ton cited one of his first acts in Con­gress, adding lan­guage to an oil-pol­lu­tion bill to cre­ate a Great Lakes re­sponse team after wit­ness­ing a spill in a Michigan port. Years later, he said, when a pipeline rup­ture in a neigh­bor­ing dis­trict threatened to send oil down­river in­to Lake Michigan, the re­sources were in place to deal with the crisis. “They had booms and they de­ployed them, and they were able to stop it from mov­ing farther west,” Up­ton said.

That spill, which dumped more than 1 mil­lion gal­lons of oil in­to the Kala­ma­zoo River in Ju­ly 2010, helped shape Up­ton’s pipeline-safety le­gis­la­tion, au­thored with Rep. John Din­gell, D-Mich., and passed the next year. “It was over­due to do pipeline safety,” Up­ton said. “We in­creased the stand­ards dra­mat­ic­ally on any oil and gas pipeline in­stalled in the coun­try.”

While the spill happened in the next dis­trict over, its fal­lout reached the wa­ter­ways in Up­ton’s turf — but it’s from far from the only loc­al en­ergy con­cern. The Pal­is­ades nuc­le­ar plant has been hit with fre­quent safety vi­ol­a­tions — in­clud­ing sev­er­al leaks earli­er this year — and was lis­ted last year as one of the coun­try’s four worst-per­form­ing plants, ac­cord­ing to the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion.

Up­ton said he is in con­stant com­mu­nic­a­tion with of­fi­cials at the NRC, as well as staffers at Pal­is­ades and an­oth­er loc­al nuc­le­ar plant, to as­sess safety is­sues. He also men­tioned the fa­cil­ity’s dry cask stor­age of spent fuel, which some have called a safety is­sue due to the plant’s prox­im­ity to Lake Michigan and the con­tain­ers’ vul­ner­ab­il­ity to earth­quakes.

Again, Up­ton used that loc­al con­cern to high­light a na­tion­al is­sue, in this case his on­go­ing push to man­date nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age at Nevada’s Yucca Moun­tain. “We have to find one safe place for this,” Up­ton said. He said he met last week with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair­man of the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, to dis­cuss a num­ber of en­ergy is­sues, in­clud­ing nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age. “There’s talk about an in­ter­im stor­age site,” he said.

Mean­while, Up­ton said he’s keep­ing a close eye across Lake Michigan as Asi­an carp in the Illinois River threaten to make their way in­to the Great Lakes. The fast-breed­ing, heavy-eat­ing fish have been deemed a “sig­ni­fic­ant risk to the Great Lakes eco­sys­tem” by the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, and elec­tric bar­ri­ers built to keep the fish out aren’t good enough, Up­ton said. “[Asi­an carp] will ru­in a mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar fish­ing in­dustry,” he said. “Once they’re in, we’re not go­ing to get them out.”¦ They’ve not de­veloped a fool­proof sys­tem [to keep them out].”

Last week, Michigan De­part­ment of Nat­ur­al Re­sources of­fi­cials held a train­ing run on the St. Joseph River, one of the ma­jor wa­ter­ways in Up­ton’s dis­trict, to pre­pare for the pos­sib­il­ity of deal­ing with Asi­an carp. Many think the river will be one of the first breed­ing grounds for the fish should they reach Lake Michigan. That threat, Up­ton said, has res­id­ents deeply con­cerned. One pub­lic meet­ing on the is­sue had people lined up to at­tend and there were com­plaints from con­stitu­ents who couldn’t at­tend due to tim­ing.

Of course, Up­ton isn’t ex­empt from more-com­mon con­stitu­ent con­cerns. “The is­sue that rings the phones more than any oth­er is gas prices,” he said. That makes for an easy segue in­to one of his top is­sues, ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline. “It’s cer­tainly bet­ter than trans­port­ing [oil] by truck, cheap­er and safer,” he said. “Isn’t it bet­ter to put it in a pipeline than it is in a ship or a truck or rail?”

While Up­ton helps frame fed­er­al en­ergy policy in Wash­ing­ton, he says he’s still tak­ing his cues from back home. He ref­er­enced oth­er is­sues, such as har­bor dredging and an In­di­ana re­finery’s dis­charges in­to Lake Michigan, where loc­al con­cerns have helped guide le­gis­la­tion. “I grew up on Lake Michigan,” Up­ton said. “I know the im­port­ance of the Great Lakes.”

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