Does the House Republicans’ alternative to the Democratic energy plan—with the GOP’s proposal for 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years—pass the straight-faced test? Not even close, and the GOP knows it.
Seeking to counter the Democratic Waxman-Markey global warming bill in the House of Representatives this month (a hodge-podge of energy and environmental policy concepts loosely larded with pig fat, which passed by a narrow 219-212 vote in late June), House Republicans in mid-June unveiled their own legislative plan.
I was listening to C-SPAN Radio when the press conference on the GOP plan aired. The moderator was Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), he of the perpetual tan. I listened casually, not much new here—more oil and gas exploration and production, staples of the GOP’s approach to energy for decades.
One Hundred Nukes in 20 Years
Then came the stunner: Boehner said the GOP plan calls for construction of 100 new U.S. nuclear plants by 2030. I must confess, I nearly spit my mouthful of tea into my computer monitor in astonishment when I heard the 100-nukes provision. It was laugh-out-loud funny.
The GOP billed this as a way to advance “energy independence,” whatever the heck that means. Only with the rapid development of electric cars—pie-in-the-sky by any sober analysis—do new nuclear plants contribute to the reduction of U.S. reliance on foreign oil. What’s more, the 100 gigawatts of new capacity is far in excess of what most sound energy analysts predict we need by 2020.
While ignored in the House, the GOP plan may come into play once the Senate considers its own approach to global warming legislation. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has already endorsed the House Republican plan, arguing that because the nation built about 100 nuclear plants between about 1970 and 1990, it can do it again.
If the Senate passes an energy bill, which is far from given, it will undoubtedly be much different than the House plan. That sets up a confrontation between the House and the Senate. A House-Senate conference committee is likely to put a lot of legislative ideas into play, including the proposals that Republicans advanced, but were defeated in committee and floor votes.
A Plan for Energy Independence?
Would the GOP plan accomplish the ambitious goals of the lawmakers for energy independence and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions? No, given that the Democrats’ bill really won’t advance those causes either. If domestic oil replaces foreign oil, (which could only occur in small amounts) it’s still oil; CO2 is still being generated by burning the oil.
So increased domestic oil is not about greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s not significant in terms of reduced oil imports. Never mind. It may be worthwhile for other reasons, such as supporting domestic economics that depend on oil and gas production, as in Alaska. Soon-to-be-former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin argued that case in a recent Washington Post op ed.
Fossil fuel fungibility is something many folks don’t easily grasp. In a world market, it doesn’t much matter where the oil comes from. There are no significant national flavors of crude; they all largely taste the same. The differences are reflected in prices. U.S. domestic oil isn’t significantly different than Saudi or Canadian crude, and the quality differences are worked out in the market.
There is a distortion in the public debate. Somehow, the idea endures that U.S. oil is somehow preferable to foreign oil. This is not the case, but it leads to the belief of many Americans in a policy of autarchy—that we should use our own oil and gas and eschew the foreign stuff as much as possible. We simply don’t have enough supply, no matter how hard we hit the oil and gas production pedal. We are doomed to energy dependence.
Autarchy is an economic and policy dog that simply doesn’t hunt in a world market. If the U.S. is able to develop new oil deposits, that oil will go into the market. That’s worthwhile. But the new oil won’t have any direct impact on the balance of oil flowing from world markets to the U.S. That’s a matter of price, determined on world futures markets. It has nothing to do with global warming or the fraud of energy independence.
Almost every serious energy analyst accepts the dynamics of world energy markets. But there are politicians on both sides of the political divide who want to exploit citizen ignorance to advance their political causes.
Ulterior Motives from Both Sides of the Aisle
Name two? Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Boehner—both are demagogues seeking to use public ignorance to advance or retard ideological agendas.
Markey has long sought federal regulatory controls over energy markets. He’s been Rep. Command-and-Control for 30 years. Boehner wants to thwart the Democrats and advance a laughably nonregulatory, “free-market” national energy and environmental crash program—that’s driven by the government—to build nuclear plants. Neither makes any sense.
Markey’s legislation would stifle markets and impose regulations—including the cap-and-trade program—that could create large inefficiencies in the way generators and consumers make and buy electricity, including the possibilities of gaming the new market system. The Massachusetts Democrat would subsidize large segments of the market—including electric utilities—in order to accomplish goals that will have no significant impact on the march of the global climate. That is, Markey wants to push renewables, trivial solutions to the alleged problem of too much carbon dioxide.
Boehner wants a nuclear crash program—shades of the Nixon administration’s “Project Independence” in the early 1970s, responding to the first Arab oil embargo and calling for 1,000 new nukes. Once again, the disconnect. Not much oil in the U.S. generates electricity. That was true in the Nixon administration, and much truer today. New nukes won’t back out coal (a domestic fuel). At most, they will simply supplant new coal generation.
How doubling electric generation from nuclear power furthers energy independence was not clear from the Republican plan, nor did anyone at the GOP press conference raise the question. Are we talking electric cars here? I don’t know. I don’t think they know, either.
Who Foots the Bill?
What’s more, nobody at the GOP press conference raised the issue of how the country could finance a doubling of nuclear generation in 20 years. I called the office of Republican House Leader Boehner to inquire about where this nuclear plant idea originated and who would supply the money. No response. I made the same call to the Republican National Committee with the same result—no call back. I can only assume that some low-level aide plucked a number out of the air (“Gee, 100 is kinda cool”), and the ignorant solons said, “Okay by us, sounds good,” without any analysis. That’s the way a lot of policy gets done in Congress, by both parties.
Does this GOP nuclear plan make any practical sense? Is it affordable? And where did the House GOP leadership come up with the notion of building 100 new nukes in 20 years, when it appears unlikely that more than a couple of new units will be built in the next decade? To turn the Republicans’ traditional, and worthwhile, question back on them: Where will the money come from? Will taxpayers finance the 100 new nukes? Will the market?
Those are reasonable questions. The GOP provided no answers.
—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.