On Earth Day, what of "Clean Energy Jobs Act"? | Wis.Community

On Earth Day, what of "Clean Energy Jobs Act"?


What's in a name?

The Bush administration was famous for giving Orwellian names to its legislation.

His Clear Skies Initiative, for example, actually weakened the Clean Air Act and other air pollution regulations, and did nothing to deal with carbon dioxide emissions.

Which brings us to Wisconsin's cleverly-named Clean Energy Jobs Act, a piece of legislation still dangling in uncertainty on the final day of the legislative session -- which just happens to be Earth Day.

The bill (let's call it CEJA for short) has been three years in the making, and is the product of a global warming task force appointed by the governor in April 2007. A long list of recommendations from that task force were eventually shaped into a comprehensive bill, and someone, somewhere along the way, quit calling it the climate change bill and started calling it the Clean Energy Jobs Act.

They say a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and this bill certainly has some humps. They're called compromises, or trade-offs. And one of them, which opens the door to more nuclear reactors in Wisconsin, is a whopper.

There are a lot of things to like about CEJA, which would move the state away from reliance on fossil fuels and in the direction of using more renewable energy. Is that worth removing the sensible restrictions in state law that have prevented any new nuclear reactors from being built in the state since it was passed in 1984?

The law now says a utility can't build a new reactor unless there is a federal repository to handle the high-level radioactive waste it produces -- waste which remains deadly for thousands of centuries (and that is not a typo.) CEJA would eliminate that requirement. That is no small compromise.

A coalition of public interest groups opposed to that change has worked for a year to try to change the bill. The coalition first asked that all of the nuclear language be removed and considered separately, rather than being packaged with a "clean energy" bill. Nuclear power is not clean; it is dirty, expensive, and dangerous. That request went nowhere, because pro-nuclear lawmakers know the nuclear language could not pass on its own.

The coalition has since suggested amendments to protect the public from terrorist attacks on reactors and to protect ratepayers from paying for expensive reactors before they are built. So far, those have gone nowhere either. When a new version of the bill emerged from being closed doors, the nuclear section of the bill was even worse than the original. Many of the renewable energy sections also were weakened or scaled back.

Many legislators who say they don't like nuclear power are still willing to vote for the bill to get the other positive benefits it offers. Others say they won't support it unless the nuclear language stays as it is.

Meanwhile, many environmental groups with a history of opposition to nuclear power (and groups of which I am a member) also have decided to support the bill, because they are so invested in passing something. The title has almost become more important than the content.

To its credit, the huge League of Conservation Voters has downgraded its support for the bill, which had been one of its legislative priorities but is no longer.

The Carbon Free Nuclear Free coalition I've worked with wanted to end up with a bill it could support, but has reluctantly concluded that the trade-offs are so unbalanced it must oppose the bill.

Ironically, it may be that the best thing legislators can do for the environment on Earth Day 2010 is to kill the Clean Energy Jobs Act and try again next year.

There's a lot of finger-pointing going on about who's to blame if this bill dies. Many of those opposing the bill -- like the federal health care bill, there is not a single Republican vote for it -- are doing it for the wrong reasons. But barring some last-minute, back room, 3 a.m. deal on the last night -- certainly a possibility in the Wisconsin Legislature -- the bill will die.

There has been a lot of "What would Gaylord Nelson say?" discussion in the last few days, as Earth Day, his brainstorm, approached. I don't claim to know what he would say about the bill. I suspect he might support it because his daughter, Tia, is the co-chair of the task force that produced the recommendations. But he certainly would not be enthusiastic about some parts of the bill. I wrote his biography, but the 300-page book never mentions nuclear power, which was not fiercely debated during his time in the Senate. (Tia herself, who's a friend, doesn't much like nukes, either. But she thinks the package deserves support. I'm used to being on her side, but we disagree on this one.)

I spent some time the last two days at an amazing conference at Monona Terrace marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, sponsored by the UW's Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I didn't hear the final speaker, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but I was reminded of what Kennedy wrote in a foreword for a book, "Beyond Earth Day," co-authored by Nelson:

"The far right and some industrialists hate the federal environmental laws, which they consider costly and time consuming. In fact, democracy, in the short term, is expensive. It is awkward, painful, and unwieldy, but in the long term there is no system more efficient. The American experiment with civilian nuclear power, which Forbes Magazine recently called 'the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of mankind,' is testimony to that fact. The nuclear industry got its start in the 1950s and 1960s before we had environmental laws that would have allowed the public to scrutinize deceptive industry claims about the economic viability of nuclear power. If those laws had been in place, American would have avoided wasting a half-trillion dollars in investment that generations of Americans will be paying for."

Happy Earth Day.


April 21, 2010 - 8:06pm