March 29, 2010

This Weekend’s News: The Future of Climate Legislation

On Saturday night, national, state, and local governments, major cities, businesses, households and international monuments all turned their lights out for Earth Hour (some great before-and-after photos here) in recognition of the challenge of global climate change. The World Wildlife Fund has organized the effort the last several years, with 126 nations participating this year, up from last year’s 88 participating states. 

Coincidentally, The New York Times reported on Saturday that the Senate is likely to take up climate change legislation in April. However, that legislation will likely look markedly different from the House version of the bill, skirting any mention of a “cap and trade” provision.  In fact, according to The New York Times, “cap and trade” is no longer the energy policy of choice: indeed, the president dropped “cap and trade” from his current budget and Senate proponents have pronounced the measure dead.

Instead, according to The New York Times:

[The Senate] plan, still being written, will include a cap on greenhouse gas emissions only for utilities, at least at first, with other industries phased in perhaps years later. It is also said to include a modest tax on gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation fuel, accompanied by new incentives for oil and gas drilling, nuclear power plant construction, carbon capture and storage, and renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, explained to The New York Times why “cap and trade” was no longer the national energy policy of choice:

Economywide cap and trade died of what amounts to natural causes in Washington. The term itself became too polarizing and too paralyzing in the effort to win over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to try to do something about climate change and our oil dependency.

It will be interesting to see what form the Senate legislation takes when they take up the issue in April. But despite the lack of national leadership in developing an energy policy, states are starting to draft their own climate change legislation. In fact, Californians will likely see a ballot initiative in November. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Under the law, the state's emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, would drop 15% by 2020. New regulations would boost solar, wind and other renewable power, cut the carbon intensity of gasoline, promote electric cars, discourage sprawl and wedge energy-saving measures into home-building, manufacturing and other sectors of the economy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a study by the California Air Resources Board to be released on Wednesday concludes that “California's overall economy will not suffer, and many parts of it will prosper under the state's landmark global warming law.” Despite this sanguine outlook, many, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufactures and Technology Association, believe that the law will hurt California’s economy, with significant impacts to small business owners. Regardless, according to the Los Angeles Times, “If the state's climate plan survives the November ballot initiative, it may still have to contend with efforts in Congress to preempt any state legislation.”

Looking beyond climate legislation, however, we have to start thinking about what solutions or alternatives energy sources are available to us today. As The New York Times reported on Saturday, the Senate version of a climate bill is likely to include incentives for nuclear power. I have to thank Christine for pointing out a review in the Washington Post on Sunday on a book that looks at one particular, but very important challenge with nuclear energy, perhaps best summed up by the opening line of the review by Bill Gifford: “Nuclear energy would surely rank among mankind's most miraculous inventions, but for one fatal flaw: Its byproducts will remain deadly for pretty much the rest of human history.”

In John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, D’Agata explores the infamous Yucca Mountain Repository which was slated to house millions of gallons of nuclear waste, what not for the Department of Energy shutting down the project on March 3, 2010 after filing a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the application for the building and operating of the Yuccca Mountain site. 

Many challenges prevented the site from coming online, including poor, potentially catastrophic planning. As Bill Gifford writes:

It quickly becomes clear that storing nuclear waste inside Yucca mountain was a colossally bad idea. The inside of the mountain was in fact not dry and arid, as had been assumed, but dripping with water. A supposedly corrosion-proof miracle alloy was developed to contain the waste, but it turned out to dissolve in water within minutes.

D’Agata explores some of the other challenges with the site, including how to safely transport the material to Yucca Mountain and appropriately label it as toxic zone for future generations still thousands of years in the making – “the powers behind Yucca settled on something based on Edvard Munch's "The Scream," that expression of primal human horror that needs no translating,” Gifford writes.

With the site officially closed down, it is unclear what will happen to the hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure at Yucca Mountain, but CNN ran this segment on Saturday depicting Yucca Mountain as an expensive hole with no other use.

D’Agata explores an interesting issue that raises some very real questions about the prospects of nuclear energy as an alternative source to fossil fuels. As climate legislation progresses at the national and state level, it is important that we think about these issues a little more. Because adopting legislation is just the first act; executing it in the short-term will likely be a whole other challenge in itself.

The Week Ahead

Today, the Society for International Development will be holding an event on Emerging Water Resource Conflicts, beginning at 12:30 PM. On Tuesday, check out this event on what role nuclear energy will play in a switch to a low carbon economy at SAIS, beginning at 4:30 PM (a nice follow-up to this post). Also on Tuesday, check out an event on the future of Burma and U.S. foreign relations, featuring former USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore, beginning at noon. Finally, SAIS will be holding an event on Solar Power: Policy Prospects and Challenges, Wednesday starting at 12:30 PM.