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Annual Public Lectures Series > Sheldon Whitehouse

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 8-11, 2010

Friday, June 11, 11:00 a.m.
Comprehensive Energy Policy: Planning for a Clean Energy Future
Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senate
Lecture Summary Prepared by Eleni Gesch-Karamanlidis

Also see: Video


The final public lecture in the 2010 Metcalf Institute series featured two speakers who spoke about the future of energy policy on June 11. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island's junior senator in the U.S. Congress, described the opportunities for a national energy policy that utilizes new ideas and techniques. Senator Whitehouse was followed by Professor Dennis Nixon of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, who provided an in-depth look at the legal repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and what this means for U.S. energy policy in the near future.

Senator Whitehouse began by noting that Americans have long led international development through innovation and technologies, although this has resulted in a wide variety of environmental impacts. Oil production comes at a heavy cost, whether referring to foreign relations with adversarial countries or domestic environmental concerns. Whitehouse argued that the many costs of an oil-based economy necessitate the investigation of all possible avenues for renewable energy.

Offshore wind is a major source of abundant, renewable clean energy that can be produced locally and break America's dependence on oil. Rhode Island's Quonset Point is a potential manufacturing plant not only for a local wind farm project, but also the Cape Wind project off of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Algal-derived fuel, biodiesel, geothermal, and solar projects are all potential renewable sources for meeting our energy needs. Within the current market, however, these projects would have a difficult time competing with conventionally-derived energy sources. Tax credits and incentives are needed to make the two energy markets economically comparable. A tax on carbon emissions is also needed, Whitehouse argued.

There has been great difficulty moving the renewable energy debate forward because of a lack of consideration for the unique aspects of different regions and because there has been a lack of input from some relevant interests. Currently, Whitehouse observed, federal energy legislation provides too much support for dirty energy and too little for renewable energy alternatives.

Senator Whitehouse concluded his remarks by describing a new proposal that he is developing with Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine to develop a National Endowment for the Oceans, akin to the equivalent endowments for the arts and humanities. This ocean-focused program would provide steady funding and political focus to manage, protect and conserve ocean ecosystems.

Dennis Nixon turned the discussion to a more immediate issue with import for our national energy policy: how could the BP oil spill happen? The country became complacent towards the oil industry after the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 because there has not been another major environmental disaster since that time. In the absence of another oil-based environmental catastrophe, the oil industry instead focused its efforts on the reduction of other sources of oil pollution. The BP oil spill, Nixon argued, has paralyzed the legal system (due to countless lawsuits) and the country.

Nixon also noted that a source of Americaís complacency towards the offshore oil industry was due to its good safety record. In 1985, offshore oil activity accounted for only 2% of oil seepage into the ocean while the marine transport industry accounted for 45%. In the decades following the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, oil companies became fearful of the risks involved with offshore oil and their associated liability in a potential spill. This industry-wide fear of risk resulted in a large reduction in the amount of oil extracted offshore, which led to a decrease in the amount of oil being handled by the marine transport industry. As a result, in 2002, the marine transport industry was responsible for only 3% of ocean oil seepage and offshore oil still had the smallest impact. The offshore oil sector had the greatest safety record so it received less attention from Congress. The public trusted oil companies to maintain this safety record as they moved operations further offshore, due to the longstanding safety record of the industry.

Nixon observed that while we want to move towards cleaner energy and conserve resources, the process is a long and bumpy road. Even many environmentally-conscious consumers still drive cars, and therefore, consume oil. Another consideration is that the second biggest revenue source after income tax to the U.S. Treasury is offshore oil. It is beneficial to the public that oil companies such as BP make money because they eventually share in the profits. The public needs to recognize that the U.S. needs oil companies to continue pumping oil so that we can fill up our cars. Our need for oil will continue until renewable energy technology is at a point where it can compete in the energy market and meet the U.S. energy demand. The legal proceedings that result from the BP oil spill, Nixon concluded, should not hamper the oil industry's ability to drill for oil because the U.S. still requires both the resource and its economic benefits.


Sheldon Whitehouse is the junior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. He is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is a forceful advocate for urgent action to address the threat of climate change, especially its impact on our coastal communities. He served as a policy advisor and counsel in the Office of the Governor of Rhode Island and as the state's Director of Business Regulation before being nominated by President Bill Clinton to be Rhode Island's U.S. Attorney in 1994. He was elected State Attorney General in 1998, a position in which he served from 1999 to 2003. In November 2006, Rhode Islanders elected Whitehouse to the Senate, where he is a member of the Special Committee on Aging, the Budget Committee, the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts and the EPW Subcommittee on Oversight. Whitehouse graduated from Yale University and the University of Virginia School of Law. (June 11 public lecture) (to contact Sen. Whitehouse, visit:

Dennis Nixon has served as the associate dean for research and administration at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography since August 2009. Prior to that, he served for eight years as the associate dean of academic affairs at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. He has been a URI faculty member for the past 34 years, teaching courses in the area of marine and coastal law. A marine lawyer by training, Nixon is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and the Rhode Island Bar. He is the secretary and general counsel for the Point Club, a fishing vessel insurance cooperative he helped found over 20 years ago. He is one of the three founders of the International Marina Institute, which provides educational programs and certification for professionals in the marine industry. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, he is also the legal advisor and risk manager for the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System, and has been providing advice to all of the US academic research vessel fleet for the past 24 years. At URI, Nixon is the founding chair of the Small Research Vessel Control Board and is the primary author of the University Small Boat Manual. He also chairs URIís Conflict of Interest Management Committee, which is concerned with the commercialization of university-generated intellectual property. He has lectured on marine law topics in 27 states and 25 countries on 6 continents. He is the author of over 50 articles and the casebook Marine and Coastal Law, first published in 1994 and released in a second edition in 2010. Nixon earned his Bachelorís degree in history at Xavier University, his law degree at the University of Cincinnati, a Master of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, a Certificate on International Institutions at the University of Geneva, and a Certificate in Ocean Law from Harvard Law School. (June 11 public lecture) E-mail:

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June 24, 2010