February 18, 2010
During his successful election campaign President Barack Obama communicated his environmental goals through a clean energy, good jobs frame. Wind, solar, energy efficiency, and clean fuels, he asserted, was the next big thought for jobs, security, and prosperity.
Still, standing at the edge of the Obama campaign’s clean energy agenda was the politically radioactive idea of using the federal government to revive the American nuclear power industry. This week President Obama struck hard at that goal, offering an $8.3 federal billion loan guarantee to the Southern Company to build two new reactors in Georgia.
Westinghouse and other nuclear industry contractors applauded. So did the New York Times. But the response in much of the environmental community was unenthusiastic, a fact anticipated by President Obama on Tuesday when he made the announcement.
“I know it has long been assumed that those who champion the environment are opposed to nuclear power,” said the president. “To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It’s that simple.”
Well, not quite. Nothing is simple about any aspect of the nation’s transition to a low-carbon economy. In Washington, progress on the Senate version of the climate and energy bill has been blocked by an avalanche of opposition. Coal and oil state lawmakers worry about its effect on mines, drilling patches, and refineries. Business associations falsely claim it will weaken an already damaged economy. Freemarket think tanks and their allies in the media are probing the underbelly of climate science in order to ruin the scientific justification for action.
It’s no easier pursuing climate action and clean energy outside Washington. Though public opinion polls consistently show Americans support clean energy investment, in practice the transition to a low carbon economy is turning out to be a big heave at the grassroots. Americans are resisting new clean energy projects in almost every region of the nation. Proposals for offshore wind farms are being blocked in Michigan by citizens concerned about how the technology will affect shoreline views, fisheries, and shipping. In Virginia, a wind farm proposed for an Appalachian ridge top was abandoned last month after public protest. Efforts by utilities to switch from fossil fuels to wood biomass in the Midwest are met with public concerns about the effects of the biomass plants on forests in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In California, landowners question whether a number of large solar thermal generating stations proposed for the Mojave Desert will sharply increase competition for scarce water and produce damaging consequences for dry land plants and wildlife.
Pursuing nuclear power, in Georgia or any other state, invites even more ferocious resistance. Perhaps that is the political strategy behind the President’s nuclear proposal. The White Houses knows its nuclear idea divides the environmental community, something the president obviously feels he can live with. But the nuclear idea also appears to have a more significant political payoff. Free market think tanks hate the big nuclear subsidies. By splitting the ideological right, a coalition that until now has confounded him politically, the president and his aides have opened a risky new path to build the low carbon economy.
Until next week, Keith Schneider