Senate Energy and Climate Legislation: The Nuclear Option

Environment & Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) announced Tuesday that committee hearings on the Boxer-Kerry climate bill, S. 1733, will begin on October 27 and that a mark-up will be planned for early to mid-November. Meanwhile, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is continuing its hearings on emission allocations, with the next hearing scheduled for Oct. 21.

After announcing the hearing, Boxer said she would try to win over all of the Environment & Public Works Committee Democrats, including coal-state Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Arlen Specter (D-PA). Boxer said she does not expect to secure any Republican votes. She plans to release a modified version of the Boxer-Kerry bill before the legislative hearings begin, with only a handful of “tweaks” compared to the version unveiled last month.

This aggressive timetable might be enough to have a bill in hand before the Copenhagen discussion in December, a goal the White House is pressing very hard to meet.

One change that would be more than a tweak would be a boost to nuclear energy. The Boxer-Kerry bill has a modest nuclear title focused on worker training and research into waste management technologies. But the bipartisan blueprint for a comprehensive energy and global warming bill that Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) spelled out in their joint op-ed in the New York Times Sunday calls for additional incentives for nuclear power, stating that “nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets.” In the op-ed, Kerry and Graham called for a streamlined permit system that maintains vigorous safeguards while allowing utilities to secure financing for more plants. As E&E reports, Tom Carper (D-Del) yesterday called for a nuclear energy amendment that could help bring aboard swing votes who support the industry, such as Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Graham, who are seeking more federal financial backing and other support. Carper’s plan involves more funding to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rather than a focus on streamlining.

As notable as this change would be, one problem with basing a consensus for the climate bill on nuclear power is that it’s nuclear. Puns aside, opinions run strong on the issue of nuclear power, particularly among the environmental lobby, and too much emphasis might lose more votes than it picks up. With only a few legislative weeks left before the end of the year, it will be interesting to see if the fast-paced timetable holds, and whether a consensus can be built in time.

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