(November 28, 2003) A broad energy bill that would have provided numerous benefits for the nuclear power industry, including billions of dollars of tax incentives for private utilities to build new atomic reactors, was defeated-at least temporarily-in a close Senate vote on 20 November.
(599.5557) NIRS - The key vote was on an attempt by backers of the legislation to stop a filibuster, which is a tactic used to prevent a vote on the substance of a bill by holding an endless debate, mounted against the bill by its opponents. 60 votes are needed to stop a filibuster, or cut off debate; the bill's supporters could only attain 58 votes. The final count was 57-39, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) changed his vote so he could bring up the issue again.
Immediately after the vote Frist said he would call for another vote within days, but that threat dissipated as the Senate became bogged down in debate over a Medicare bill and as it became clear that without being able to change the bill (it already had been passed by the House and no changes were permissible) there was no incentive for any Senator to change his/her vote. It now appears that there will be substantial arm-twisting and perhaps some efforts to change the bill either by sending it back to a House-Senate conference committee or by amending other bills to include some energy legislation. At this point, a new vote early in the new year seems likely, but by no means assured.
The bill (HR 6) was the culmination of a three-year Bush administration effort that began with Vice-President Cheney's energy task force, which met largely in secret, and almost exclusively with energy industry interests, to craft a new energy policy for the U.S. that would primarily benefit energy producers (see WISE News Communique 549.5275: "The Bush energy plan"). A policy document produced by the task force then became fodder for legislation proposed by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who became chairman of the committee following the 2002 elections.
But Domenici's bill ran into resistance in the Senate, and it was scrapped last summer and replaced by Senate passage of an energy bill crafted by Democrats and passed in the previous Congress. Undeterred, Domenici and House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) used the bill merely as a foundation, and in an unprecedented closed conference committee rewrote substantial portions of the bill without letting even other conference committee members see their work.
When the bill finally was released on Saturday 15 November-just 48 hours before debate was to begin-it quickly became clear that the legislation was even more unbalanced and sided with energy producers more than many had already feared. As Republican Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, it was the "leave no lobbyist behind" Act.
For example, Domenici's original bill had called for US$7 billion or so in loan guarantees to spark the construction of new commercial reactors. The new version was more insidious: it placed nuclear power on the same level as wind and solar, and offered a 1.8 cents per kilowatt/hour tax break for construction of new reactors, which analysts valued at about US$6-7.5 billion. But tax incentives have a tendency to be renewed, whereas loan guarantees don't-some analysts projected the actual cost at about US$15 billion. And it perhaps goes without saying that loan guarantees may someday be repaid, whereas tax incentives are permanent losses to the federal treasury.
The bill also contained surprising new provisions to benefit a single company, Louisiana Energy Services, which having been kicked out of Louisiana and Tennessee, is now seeking to build a new private uranium enrichment plant in Domenici's home state of New Mexico (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 591.5534: "LES switching to New Mexico?"). Domenici's legislation would have required the NRC to complete its hearing process on LES' plant within two years, even though hearings on a similar plant in Louisiana lasted nearly seven years, often because of LES foot-dragging on providing documents. It would have required the DOE to issue a finding of need for the facility, even though in the first set of hearings it was determined that there is no need for a new uranium enrichment plan-a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The bill also would have effectively ended consideration of environmental justice issues for LES-another stumbling block in Louisiana, and would have required the DOE to declare the depleted uranium waste from LES as "low-level" waste, even though "low-level" waste dumps have an institutional control period of 500 years, and depleted uranium is both hazardous and radioactive for millions of years.
The bill also would have authorized US$1.1 billion as a down payment on building a new "advanced" reactor in Idaho to produce hydrogen, and offered a variety of other goodies for various nuclear interests.
For more information on the bill, a Senate vote list, and how you can help stop it when it returns to the Senate floor, go to www.nirs.org
Source and contact: NIRS at email@example.com