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Boucher's Gambit

A “clean” bill on carbon tech won’t stay clean for long.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2008

would exclude any R&D for combustion technologies.

Likewise the bill would disallow R&D for electricity storage technology, arguably the single most important tool for addressing the dual challenges of climate change and energy security. Cheap, lightweight, efficient energy cells would drastically reduce GHG emissions by getting the most out of non-dispatchable, carbon-neutral, domestic power sources. In the bargain, they’d displace a large share of the petroleum imported to fuel transportation. But the Boucher bill ignores energy storage.

And what about nuclear energy? Finding a safe and economical way to recycle spent nuclear fuel would solve the nuclear industry’s biggest long-term problem. Also, it would clear an important psychological and political hurdle to new nuclear development (see “ Is Yucca Enough? ”). Nuclear represents the only existing climate-friendly baseload power technology that could replace a large segment of the coal fleet.

Why then does Boucher’s bill exclude anything related to nuclear, renewables or even efficiency and conservation?

A couple of possible reasons leap to mind.

First, by focusing its mission on CCS, the fund might have a better chance of accomplishing something useful. If all possible green technologies claim a piece of the $1 billion pie, then none of them will get more than a small bite—perhaps not enough to make a difference.

However, that argument seems debatable. The job of the prospective EPRI corporation will be to determine which R&D investments will deliver the greatest bang for the buck. Providing a full technology menu seems more likely to yield breakthroughs than arbitrarily limiting that menu to a single item.

Furthermore, as long as the industry is going to the trouble of establishing an R&D surcharge, why not collect $20 a year from ratepayers instead of $10? Most customers won’t notice the extra 83 cents in their monthly bill, and an additional $1 billion would give EPRI the resources it needs to develop the best of all possible technology solutions, rather than just CCS.

This leads to the second obvious reason for limiting the fund to CCS. Namely, among all the possible solutions, CCS is the only one that, if successful, would result in more coal being burned. All the other technologies would displace coal consumption, either by making the fleet more efficient or making other resources more competitive. So coal producers and coal-state legislators have good reason for heaping the R&D funds on CCS, while other technologies fight over scraps.

Credit Without Blame

The Boucher bill comes hot on the heels of an ugly legislative charade over cap-and-trade legislation, the aforementioned Lieberman-Warner bill. Rather than engage in serious debate, Senators on both sides of the aisle used Lieberman-Warner as a platform for grandstanding. Republicans filibustered to prevent it from moving forward, ostensibly because Democrats were holding up President Bush’s judicial nominations. Meanwhile, Democrats refused to allow Republicans to offer amendments to the bill, and inserted poison-pill language that made the legislation unpalatable to almost everyone. Even Senators who support GHG regulation said the bill had no chance of being enacted.

So what does Lieberman-Warner have to do with the Boucher bill?