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Federal, state regulators prod utilities to consider technology for grid upgrade

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lailluminator.com – Robert Zullo – 2023-08-26 10:00:53

Federal, state regulators prod utilities to consider technology for grid upgrade

by Robert Zullo, Louisiana Illuminator
August 26, 2023

Of the many challenges confronting the nation's aging, straining electric grid, the need for a lot of new transmission capacity is among the most pressing, experts and policymakers say.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy said the nation will need thousands of miles of new lines to better link regions to handle extreme weather, reduce costs and connect new renewable energy projects.

But building a new interregional transmission line can take a decade or more — chiefly because of siting and permitting delays, local resistance, planning problems, cost allocation and other obstacles. 

And while Congress has taken some steps on permitting reform (in this summer's debt limit deal), there's a suite of technologies that proponents and some state and federal regulators agree could get more out of the existing transmission system right now and potentially reduce the need for new wires.

They're called “grid-enhancing technologies,” or GETs in industry shorthand, and in many cases they've been embraced elsewhere but have been slower to take root in the United States.

“If we don't squeeze every drop out of the existing system it's going to be a tough sell as we consider the costs involved in transmission expansion,” said Dan Scripps, chair of Michigan's utility commission, at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission task force meeting last month. “And I believe that grid-enhancing technologies can help us do that to maximize the value from the infrastructure that we have today. “

What are GETs?

Grid-enhancing technologies include a variety of tools to maximize the ability of the grid to handle the flow of electricity. They include sensors, power-flow devices, software and hardware that can better deliver real-time weather data and other technologies like topology optimization, which can identify the best grid configurations and route power flow around bottlenecks. Think of the electric grid as a road system and grid-enhancing technologies as traffic control devices and variable speed limits that can help alleviate congestion, a Department of Energy paper says.

And congestion on the nation's electric grid is a real problem. Defined broadly, congestion in electric terms means any time physical constraints on the power system prevent the cheapest power from flowing to customers, which, naturally, raises costs.

“For example, the flow of power may be restricted by the maximum thermal limit of a transformer or power line conductor,” the Department of Energy says. “Therefore, operators are forced to reroute power through less optimal paths and rely on more expensive power generation, like conventional fossil fuels, while curtailing renewable wind or solar to safely meet the demand of their customers.”

A report released in July by Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that works to integrate renewable power into the electric grid, found that congestion costs (after doubling between 2020 and 2021) rose to $12.1 billion in 2022, an increase of 56% from 2021, in regions of the country controlled by six large regional transmission organizations. By extrapolating that increase to the rest of the U.S., the firm estimated that the total cost to electric customers of congestion in 2022 was nearly $21 billion.

“The best way to reduce transmission congestion is to increase transmission capacity. However, very little of transmission spending is on new large-scale, high-voltage transmission lines,” Grid Strategies wrote. “In addition, few U.S. utilities have adopted dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control or topology optimization (together known as Grid Enhancing Technologies or GETs) to make more efficient use of existing grid infrastructure.”

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Why adoption of GETs has lagged

There was broad consensus at the seventh meeting last month of FERC's Joint Federal-State Task Force on Electric Transmission that GETs could yield big cost and reliability benefits for grid operators and electric customers.

“Perhaps the most compelling case to me for these technologies is that right now they can reduce grid congestion allowing our markets to consistently access lower cost power and to respond to real time reliability issues. And that's particularly important when we're dealing with extreme weather events,” said Andrew French, a member of the Kansas Corporation Commission who serves on the task force.

So why aren't these types of technologies more prevalent in the United States?

The biggest reason, grid experts say, is how utilities earn money for grid upgrades and how their performance is measured.

“Utilities are not necessarily directly economically impacted by the inefficient use of transmission infrastructure,” said Darcie Houck, a California utilities commissioner who also serves on the task force, adding that often utilities pass on congestion costs to power generators and customers. “Utilities are financially motivated to build more capital-intensive transmission projects to grow their rate base which they earn a return on. … GETs may defer or negate the need for such capital projects thereby reducing utility revenues.”

Part of the reluctance also stems from a need for grid operators to “validate the technologies on their own system because there are not references publicly available on performance, integration, and deployment,” the Idaho National Laboratory wrote in a report last year.

Also creating hesitance is a lack of industry standards and specifications for some of the technologies, as well as potential security concerns, said Andrew Phillips, vice president of transmission and distribution at the Electric Power Research Institute, during the FERC task force meeting.

“When a new technology comes to market, we need a spec to buy to. We need to be confident it's going to last 30 or 40 years. And that's a really important thing and often a barrier,” Phillips said, adding that EPRI, a research and development nonprofit, has developed testing for some technologies like advanced conductors and is working on standards for others.

“We need an industry accepted way of evaluating these technologies, incorporating them into our plans and then exercising those plans.”

Yet, despite the past resistance, some see attitudes among utilities changing.

“Ratepayers aren't going to pay for twice as much grid as we have today so they have to look at other solutions,” said Julia Selker, chief operating officer at Grid Strategies as well as the executive director of the WATT Coalition, which is pushing for broader adoption of GETs. “I see a mindset shift.”

Utility poles lean over a road in Grand Isle following Hurricane Ida on Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

A push from FERC and the states

FERC has taken recent steps to get more out of the existing transmission system and push for consideration of new technologies.

In 2021, FERC issued a final rule requiring transmission providers to use “ambient-adjusted ratings” for transmission lines that take into account actual air temperature and other weather conditions, instead of limiting a line's capacity based on conservative, worst-case assumptions.

The order also opened the door for transmission owners to explore “dynamic line ratings,” a more real-time rating that can account for other factors that might increase line capacity, like wind speed, cloud cover and other conditions.

This summer,  PPL Electric, which has about 1.4 million customers in eastern and central Pennsylvania, won an industry award for being the first American electric company to install and integrate a dynamic line rating system within its transmission management and market operations. The technology will save its customers' an estimated $23 million per year in congestion costs, the company says. A 2021 report commissioned by the WATT Coalition contends that deploying GETs nationwide would save more $5 billion a year in energy costs, against an upfront investment of $2.7 billion in the first year.

In July, as part of its effort to help clear backlogs of new power projects seeking to connect to the grid, FERC also required transmission providers to consider grid-enhancing technologies in their interconnection studies. And another proposed rule could also require their consideration in transmission planning.

“GETs belong in long-term planning,” Selker said. “If you're not considering GETs than you're not making the most efficient decisions for customers.”

But there's been some reluctance among FERC commissioners to mandate any specific technology.

“We need to really listen to the engineers on this,” Commissioner Mark Christie, a former Virginia utility regulator, said. “There's tremendous benefit if you get it right. There's not benefit if you don't.”

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In a concurrence filed on the new interconnection rule, Christie acknowledged the vested interest of transmission owners in building “costly new transmission assets” instead of potentially less expensive technologies that could get more out of existing lines. But he also said there was “plenty of rent seeking” as well by companies who sell grid-enhancing technologies and the organizations they fund who stand to profit from any regulation mandating their use.

“Striking the appropriate balance – one that is in the public interest – is a challenge,” Christie said.

But there's also a role for states. Selker said utility regulators in several states, including Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina, have asked their companies to report on their pursuit of federal funding for grid upgrades. There's about $14 billion in federal funding available to states, tribes and utilities over the next several years for grid-enhancing technologies and other upgrades.

Caitlin Marquis, a managing director at Advanced Energy United, a trade group for clean energy companies, called the FERC requirement that GETs be considered in interconnection a small first step.

“There is a requirement to evaluate these technologies, there is a reporting requirement, but there is a lot left to transmission providers' discretion. … It's to be seen whether it results in increased use of GETs,” she said. “GETs is definitely an area where there is state interest and states could definitely be playing a bigger role in ensuring they get considered.”

Several state regulators on the FERC task force took a similar view.

“We need to squeeze every bit of value out of our existing system for the benefit of our ratepayers,” said Kimberly Duffley, a North Carolina utilities commissioner. “One thing state commissions can do is evaluate their existing rules to ensure they're creating conditions for GETs to be considered where appropriate.”

Marissa Gillett, chair of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said it's up to state and federal regulators to develop shared savings and other programs to push utilities to consider “non-wires” grid solutions, combining “a healthy disincentive with potential incentives.”

“Our ratepayers need us as regulators, whether state or federal level, to define the rules of the road and to insist on a fuller accounting of how an incumbent [utility] lands on a capital intensive solution,” she said. “I do think we need to go beyond the simple instructions that GETs should be considered.“

She noted that utility decisions on what to build aren't made just on engineering merits in a vacuum.

“We should all trust but verify but also encourage and enforce if necessary,” she said.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Trump comes out against Alabama IVF ruling as national Republicans scramble for distance

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lailluminator.com – Jacob Fischler – 2024-02-23 16:47:02

Trump comes out against Alabama IVF ruling as national Republicans scramble for distance

by Jacob Fischler, Louisiana Illuminator
February 23, 2024

Former President Donald Trump called on Alabama lawmakers Friday to “find an immediate solution” to remedy a state Supreme Court ruling that threatened the availability of in vitro fertilization, and national Republicans running for Congress sought to distance themselves from the Alabama decision as well.

In a post to his social media site, Truth Social, Trump said the Alabama Supreme Court ruling last week that gave fertilized embryos the same rights as children was at odds with the anti-abortion movement that is influential in the Republican Party.

The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination endorsed efforts by Alabama legislators to tweak state law — which includes one of the most restrictive bans on abortion — to protect IVF.

“Today, I am calling on the Alabama Legislature to act quickly to find an immediate solution to preserve the availability of IVF in Alabama,” the post read, in Trump's first public comments since the Alabama ruling. “The Republican Party should always be on the side of the Miracle of Life – and the side of Mothers, Fathers, and their Beautiful Babies. IVF is an important part of that.”

IVF, a common fertility practice, involves harvesting a woman's eggs and fertilizing them outside the body. The resulting embryos are frozen and stored for future transfer into a uterus, but couples often create more embryos than they end up using.

The Alabama justices' ruling could open prospective parents and clinics to criminal charges of abandonment or manslaughter for embryos that are destroyed rather than implanted into a uterus.

Leaders in Alabama's Legislature scrambled late this week to address the ruling, with a key committee chairman authoring a bill to declare embryos created during IVF would not be considered a human life unless implanted into a uterus.

The decision led to the closure of at least three IVF programs in the state this week and inspired intense criticism of anti-abortion Republicans from Democrats from President Joe Biden on down.

U.S. Supreme Court decision

The ruling was a continuation of Republicans' attempts in the states to control pregnancy after the U.S. Supreme Court 2022 ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, many national Democrats said this week.

“They came for abortion first. Now it's IVF and next it'll be birth control,” Trump's 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton said in a tweet Thursday. “The extreme right won't stop trying to exert government control over our most sacred personal decisions until we codify reproductive freedom as a human right.”

The House Majority PAC, which helps Democrats running for the U.S. House, compiled a list Friday of Republicans in competitive districts who'd voted for legislation the group said would have the same effect nationally as the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling.

Biden, who is likely to face Trump in the November general election, is seeking to hold the former president responsible. Trump appointed three of the six justices who voted to overturn abortion protections.

Biden campaign director Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement that Trump bore responsibility for the Alabama decision and other restrictions on abortion and fertility treatment.

“American women couldn't care less what Donald Trump posts on Truth Social, they care that they can't access fertility treatment because of him,” Chavez Rodriguez said. “Let's be clear: Alabama families losing access to IVF is a direct result of Donald Trump's Supreme Court justices overturning Roe v. Wade.”

U.S. Senate GOP campaign arm sends out memo

Trump's position — that Alabama lawmakers should find a legislative fix to protect IVF after the court's ruling — is in line with U.S. Senate Republicans' campaign arm.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Jason Thielman sent a memo to GOP Senate candidates, Politico reported Friday.

The memo instructed candidates to “Clearly state your support for IVF and fertility-related services as blessings for those seeking to have children” and to “Publicly oppose any efforts to restrict access to IVF and other fertility treatments, framing such opposition as a defense of family values and individual freedom,” according to the Politico report.

Five GOP Senate hopefuls in key races then issued statements expressing support for IVF. The candidates were Kari Lake in Arizona, Tim Sheehy in Montana, Sam Brown in Nevada, Mike Rogers in Michigan and Matt Dolan in Ohio.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the last Republican still challenging Trump's 2024 nomination, sent mixed messages this week about her position.

The former South Carolina governor said in an NBC News interview Wednesday that she personally agreed that embryos “are babies,” and that the Alabama court ruled correctly under state law. But she later told CNN's Jake Tapper she disagreed with the ruling and said the state should reexamine the law.

Alabama lawmakers search for fix

Alabama legislators worked Thursday to file legislation addressing the court's ruling.

Republican Tim Melson, the chair of the Alabama Senate's Healthcare Committee, drafted a bill on Thursday that would declare that a human egg fertilized in vitro would not be considered a human life unless implanted in a uterus.

Alabama House Democratic Leader Anthony Daniels, a candidate in Alabama's 2nd Congressional District, filed a bill that said that a fertilized egg or human embryo outside a uterus shall not “be considered an unborn child, a minor child, a natural person, or any other term that connotes a human being for any purpose under state law.”

Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, and leaders of the Alabama Legislature, which has a Republican supermajority, expressed a cautious desire to address the Supreme Court's ruling.

Ivey, who signed Alabama's near-total abortion ban in 2019, said in a statement Friday that she looked forward “to continue closely following this issue.”

“Following the ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court, I said that in our state, we work to foster a culture of life,” the statement said. “This certainly includes some couples hoping and praying to be parents who utilize IVF.”

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said in a statement Friday that the Legislature would “soon consider a solution” to the issue.

“Alabamians strongly believe in protecting the rights of the unborn, but the result of the State Supreme Court ruling denies many couples the opportunity to conceive, which is a direct contradiction,” the statement said.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed told reporters Thursday the chamber was weighing options.

“If we're supposed to do something or there's an opportunity for us to do something with it, what would we do?” he asked. “How would we address that? And so we've got some smart legal minds trying to help us understand.”

The office of the state's Republican attorney general, Steve Marshall, said in a statement ​​he “has no intention of using the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision as a basis for prosecuting IVF families or providers.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, a Democrat, said that Democrats in 2019 pushed for exceptions in the abortion ban, but were rebuffed by majority Republicans.

“At the end of the day, the Republican Party has to be responsible for what they have done,” he said. “They need to watch how they're passing these laws that could affect people, and this is one of the unintended consequences they never saw coming. This is what we keep trying to tell them on a regular basis. This is theirs. They need to fix it.”

Brian Lyman and Jemma Stephenson contributed to this report.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Nitrogen gas, electric chair executions get Louisiana House approval 

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lailluminator.com – Piper Hutchinson – 2024-02-23 16:06:45

Nitrogen gas, electric chair executions get Louisiana House approval 

by Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
February 23, 2024

The Louisiana House of Representatives voted Friday to approve one new and one previously used method of execution. The legislation also shields records related to executions from public view under threat of criminal penalties for anyone who leaks them. 

The House backed House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, to nitrogen gas and electrocution to the legal methods the state can use to execute people. The bill also shields records from the public that cover companies or pharmacies that sell execution drugs and equipment to the state. Anyone who violated the law could be subject to up to two years in prison and a fine reaching $50,000.

Muscarello's bill advanced on a largely party-lines 71-29 vote, though Republican Reps. Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans, Brach Myers of Lafayette and Barbara Freiberg of Baton Rouge voted against the bill, while Democratic Reps. Vanessa LaFleur of Baton Rouge and Patricia Moore of Monroe supported it. 

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“It's time to honor the victims. That's what this bill does,” Muscarello told representatives during floor debate. 

Louisiana banned execution by electric chair in 1991, when it was last used, in favor of lethal injection. At the time, Louisiana faced a court challenge from plaintiffs who alleged electrocution was an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. 

It's been 14 years since Louisiana executed someone by lethal injection, a method that has been difficult to carry out in states that use it because of a shortage of drugs needed. Death penalty proponents have argued drugmakers are reluctant to increase supplies because of the negative stigma.

Resuming executions is the sole goal of the legislation, Muscarello has said. Republicans in favor of the proposal, including Gov. Jeff Landry, have called on the state to resume executions in order to fulfill what they describe as a contract between the state and victims' loved ones. 

Activity on death row is a key priority for Landry, the self-styled tough-on-crime governor, who has long supported expanding the methods by which Louisiana executes people. 

The overwhelming approval in the House puts the state one step closer to carrying out its first execution since 2010. At present, there are two people on death row who have exhausted their appeals. They include Ted Wessinger, who killed two people in 1995, including Stephanie Guzzardo, whose father Wayne has testified in favor of Muscarello's legislation. 

Most states that withhold execution-related records don't criminally penalize those who go public with the information. The only one that does, Arkansas, has not executed anyone since its shield law was approved. Despite making leaks of the information a felony, Arkansas has been unable to obtain drugs needed for execution — even though its corrections department said it is actively looking for them

Democrats proposed several amendments meant to bring transparency to executions, all but one of which failed. 

Muscarello allowed a change Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, proposed that would prevent legislators, the governor and their immediate family members from selling execution supplies to the state. Muscarello said he believed the amendment is duplicative of existing ethics laws but allowed it regardless. 

While Muscarello said he trusted the state to act ethically and legally — pushing back on the need for more public scrutiny — several critics of his proposal pointed to an incident in which the state was not upfront with a supplier. 

In 2014, the state purchased hydromorphone from Lake Charles Memorial Hospital with the intent of using it to carry out an execution, The Lens reported. Officials didn't inform the hospital why it wanted the drugs, and the hospital leadership told The Lens it would not have provided the drugs if they had known what it was for. 

Republicans killed another amendment from Rep. Mandie Landry that would have required the state to notify suppliers the state intended to use the items purchased from them in an execution. 

Muscarello's bill will next be heard in a Senate committee next week. 

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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More than 500 new Russia sanctions levied by White House after Navalny death

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lailluminator.com – Jacob Fischler – 2024-02-23 12:45:45

More than 500 new Russia sanctions levied by White House after Navalny death

by Jacob Fischler, Louisiana Illuminator
February 23, 2024

The Biden administration will impose a new round of economic sanctions targeting Russian fuel exports and military-industry imports, the Treasury Department announced Friday.

Coming one week after Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in the custody of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government and one day short of the two-year anniversary of the country's invasion of Ukraine, the more than 500 new sanctions include targets inside and outside of Russia and are meant to disrupt Putin's ability to fund and wage war.

“Our sanctions have two goals,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said Friday. “Reduce the revenues the Kremlin has to fuel its war of choice, and disrupt Russia's ability to get the goods it needs to build the weapons the Kremlin wants.”

The sanctions were designed to “crack down” on Russia's efforts to evade existing measures to disrupt the export of Russian energy, Adeyemo said in an appearance Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations, according to a department transcript.

Russia has spent considerable resources to avoid previous sanctions, Adeyemo said. Those efforts take away from what Russia can commit to the battlefield, he added.

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Other targets

Friday's sanctions also target third-country individuals and entities that provide Russia with weapons and other tools of war.

Those targets include six China-based technology suppliers and a precious metals investment firm based in Liechtenstein and owned by German nationals. They also include manufacturers based in Serbia, Estonia, Ireland, the Kyrgyz Republic and Finland, according to a news release from the Treasury Department.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control also listed new targets in Russia's military-industrial, financial and other sectors.

Companies include manufacturers or providers of weapons, 3D printers, metalworking equipment, industrial chemicals, semiconductors and other electronics, military informational technology, industrial automation, optics such as thermal imaging technology, navigational instruments, energy storage, aerospace, logistics and precious metals.

Treasury sanctioned nearly 300 companies. Together with sanctions from the departments of State and Commerce, the total announced Friday was more than 590, according to the Treasury Department.

The State Department would add three Russian government officials related to Navalny's death to its sanctions list, according to the Treasury Department release. The State Department had not released its own list as of midday Friday.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement that the sanctions were appropriate to hold Putin accountable.

“Putin believes he can murder opponents and critics with impunity,” Brown said. “We must prove him wrong. The United States and the West must continue to hold the lawless Russian regime accountable. We must use every tool to protect U.S. national security and stand with our allies.”

Democrats travel to Ukraine

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York led a delegation of Senate Democrats to Ukraine this week. In Lyiv on Friday, he told reporters that the group sought to pressure U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, to support an aid package to the country that is running low on supplies to defend against Russia.

“Without the aid, Ukraine, America should know, Speaker Johnson and the House Republicans should know, without the aid, we will lose the war,” Schumer said, according to a transcript provided by his office.

“But conversely, we were told by just about everyone we saw — American, Ukrainian, military, political, diplomatic — that if they get the aid, if Ukraine gets the aid, it will win the war.”

Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut were part of the delegation with Schumer.

The Senate approved in a bipartisan vote this month a $95 billion package for emergency military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

But the House, where Republicans have for months blocked any military assistance to Ukraine, has not acted on the measure.

President Joe Biden also urged the nation's governors to press for Ukraine assistance during a meeting at the White House Friday.

After a campaign stop in California Thursday, Biden repeated his view that Putin is “responsible for” Navalny's death. The outspoken Putin opponent, who was nearly killed by poison in 2020, died in a Russian prison last week.

The circumstances of his death are not clear in the West, but Biden has placed the blame on Putin.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is challenging former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, indicated in a Friday statement that she would treat Russia more harshly than either Biden or Trump.

“When it comes to Russia, Joe Biden has been five steps behind, and Donald Trump is openly appeasing Vladimir Putin,” she said.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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