Lawmakers Pitch Nuclear Energy, Carbon Capture to Scale Down Emissions

There’s a growing bipartisan push to back research and development in these areas, despite skepticism from some environmental advocates.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Feb. 12, 2019, 8 p.m.

Democrats and some climate-action allies are warming up to proposals to boost fossil-fuel and nuclear innovation to curb global emissions, despite a long-held skepticism of those technologies from the broad environmental community.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill prefer far more drastic action, namely a tax on fossil-fuel emissions. But members on both sides of the aisle are now teaming up to push legislation to hone research and development for carbon capture and cutting-edge nuclear technology, wagering that those proposals are the most likely to find bipartisan footing in the 116th Congress.

And the bipartisan drive to move ahead with energy-innovation measures stands in stark contrast, at least optically, to the Green New Deal, which Republicans often mock and many Democrats back ardently.

Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney is crafting a carbon-capture bill with Republican Rep. David McKinley, according to an interview with McKinley, who represents a district in coal-behemoth West Virginia.

Meanwhile, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski is fine-tuning bipartisan legislation to help the nuclear industry sell power to the federal government and encourage more collaboration on new technological developments.

Even some of the most environmentally hawkish Democrats are backing those efforts.

“There’s been a move on that,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said of Democratic attitudes on carbon capture and advanced nuclear technology. “I think [Democrats] recognize that power sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide need to be preserved if they’re safe and operate reasonably economically.”

Final negotiations on the House carbon-capture and Senate nuclear bills come just days after a bipartisan group of senators introduced two measures to boost carbon capture.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso teamed up with Republicans and Democrats, including Whitehouse, on a bill to force the Environmental Protection Agency to research carbon capture and ease permitting restrictions for projects. The same day, Sen. John Hoeven introduced bipartisan legislation to give carbon-capture projects easier access to a tax credit.

Supporters say passage of legislation last year to increase the value of another carbon-capture tax credit, along with two other nuclear bills, paved the way for more bipartisan action. That bill caught a ride along the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.

“These technologies satisfy a lot of different priorities and needs. For us, and for many Democrats, the top priority is climate,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a think tank that identifies itself as “center-left” politically. “For a lot of Republicans, it’s economic. It’s making use of energy resources. It can be national security-related. It scratches a lot of itches.”

More left-leaning groups are also jumping on board. In late 2018, the Union of Concerned Scientists sounded alarm bells over U.S. nuclear retirements, arguing that replacement fossil-fuel energy will exacerbate climate change. The Nature Conservancy now backs carbon capture, and the Clean Air Task Force said, in a study released Tuesday, that the tax credit could lead to 49 million metric tons of captured carbon dioxide annually by 2030.

But the most hard-core environmental groups still have no appetite for fossil and nuclear technologies, warning lawmakers against incorporating them in climate proposals under the Green New Deal banner.

“There is absolutely no reason to keep these polluting industries on life support either through deregulatory gimmicks or tax giveaways,” said Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. “The record is clear. Clean renewables are viable.”

Wind and solar power are gaining a bigger share of the U.S. energy portfolio as costs decline. Still, even Ernest Moniz, who was the Energy secretary under President Obama, has downplayed a rapid transition to 100 percent renewables, a key priority for many environmental hawks.

“The idea of an all-renewable energy economy by 2030 is just unrealistic,” Moniz said, according to The Washington Post. “And putting forward unrealistic goals, in my view, may impede our progress if it starts to leave behind key constituencies."

A reality is setting in among policy advocates. Regardless of U.S. action, global emissions are likely to rise in the coming decade, and low-carbon technological advances offer virtually the only alternative for developing economies, many of which are spewing out dramatic increases in greenhouse gases amid economic booms.

But there is no clean technology currently available to replace coal globally at cost-effective rates, according to Rich Powell, executive director at ClearPath, a conservative, energy-focused think tank.

“If we’re just going to be brutally realistic, we don’t have anything like that right now,” he said. “The reality is we need better offerings that are realistic for other countries.”

Some Democrats think proposals to boost carbon capture and advanced nuclear can play symbiotically with the Green New Deal, a climate resolution that Democrats unveiled last week. The resolution calls for a 40-60 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030.

“I think there’s just a recognition that nobody’s going to get exactly what they want without a governing majority,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democratic member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “So there is going to be some give and take, and I think having an openness to those technologies is part of what will get us there.”

Heinrich touted a massive lands package the Senate passed Tuesday as a prime example of aggressive bipartisan policy in the upper chamber. The package includes a permanent extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a major priority for environmentalists and sportsmen. House members may soon sign off on the bill, although leadership has not yet made announcements.

But Republicans have largely knocked the Green New Deal since its rollout. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to take the resolution to the Senate floor. “I’ve noted with great interest the Green New Deal. And we’re going to be voting on that in Senate. It will give everybody an opportunity to go on record,” he said at a Tuesday press conference.

A fact sheet linked to the resolution released by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office initially condemned nuclear energy. The sponsors of the resolution later walked that position back.

A U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in October, concluded that the global community has only a dozen years to drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in order to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that point, drought, flooding, and extreme heat will pose drastic challenges, the report says.

Despite his support for the nuclear and carbon-capture legislation, Whitehouse said those measures will fall woefully short of facilitating the necessary reductions in global emissions.

“Nobody should think that those are anywhere close to providing a solution to the carbon problem,” he said. “If anything, they’re a very small investment in developing technologies that, under a proper carbon price, could grow into a meaningful piece of a solution.”

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