Whitman expects some EPA greenhouse regime to advance

Former New Jersey governor and U.S. EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman believes some version of EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions rules will go forward in the next four years, even if ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney should win the election.

Whitman said her fellow Republican, Romney, would have a tough time halting EPA regulation of greenhouse gases altogether, because this is an issue that has already been filtered through the courts.

“Something will go forward,” Whitman told GenerationHub in an Oct. 25 telephone interview. “I think you will see some action on carbon.”

Whitman co-chairs a national pro-nuclear advocacy group called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. She co-chairs the organization along with a former Greenpeace leader, Patrick Moore.

While some type of carbon regime will eventually become reality, Whitman continues to hope the United States will adopt a more clearly defined energy policy – one that would help nuclear retain its 20% share of U.S. electric generation. “Hopefully, we will keep it at 20%,” Whitman said.

The much-discussed U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program provided a necessary “psychological” benefit for the domestic industry, she said, although Southern (NYSE: SO) and SCANA (NYSE: SCG) have said that new nuclear projects in Georgia and South Carolina can go forward without them.

Southern subsidiary Georgia Power actually reached an agreement in principle for a DOE loan guarantee, but at last report has yet to finalize the deal.

The government loan program helps give reassurance to banks and other lenders. They hope not to use it, but are glad it’s there, Whitman said.

Cheap gas squeezes nuclear as well as coal

A 1,000-MW nuclear plant carries a much larger commitment in terms of both time and upfront expense compared to a natural gas combined-cycle plant of the same size. Whitman acknowledged that the low cost of natural gas and weak power markets probably factored into the recent Dominion (NYSE: D) decision to retire its Kewaunee merchant nuclear plant in Wisconsin in 2013.

“Clearly economics plays a large role in this,” Whitman said. Natural gas and the weak energy marketplace have already had a deep impact on coal-fired generation, Whitman said. It’s mistaken to think that nuclear will be exempt, she said.

At the same time, natural gas won’t eliminate the need for U.S. nuclear energy, Whitman said. Gas prices are already picking up and lots of people in Whitman’s native Northeast don’t like “fracking,” a necessary production method for shale gas, any more than nuclear reactors.

Also, Whitman noted that gas plants still emit carbon dioxide. While gas emits less than coal plants, it still produces CO2, Whitman said. The United States will have a hard time meeting long-time carbon control goals without nuclear power.

Construction work in progress (CWIP) provisions in states like Georgia and Florida do help blunt the high construction cost impact of nuclear power. The way these provisions are structured can minimize the rate shock that might otherwise result, Whitman said.

When asked why areas like the Sun Belt are pro-nuclear while more urban areas of the Northeast are nuclear averse, Whitman thinks it has something to do with future expectations.

Populated urban areas tend to think their population growth and energy demand have reached a plateau, while the Southeast anticipates a future with a definite increase in both census count and electric demand, Whitman speculated.

Perhaps there is also some “TMI hangover” involved, Whitman said, alluding to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident of the 1970s, which came in Pennsylvania. Overall, however, Whitman thinks the more people learn about nuclear power the better their impression will become.

“I’m optimistic that nuclear is going to continue to be a significant part of our energy future,” Whitman said.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.