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The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association declared Wednesday for the first time that it will oppose any energy bill that includes a cap solely on utility emissions.
The group’s chief executive Glenn English, a former congressman from Oklahoma, told EnergyGuardian that a utility-only cap on carbon dioxide emissions would be unfair to electric co-ops and to the utility sector generally.
He also argued that it would not cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet generally accepted targets by 2020 and beyond.
English said the association, which withheld its opposition to the House-passed climate bill to seek better terms in the Senate, would only consider backing a bill that imposes economy-wide greenhouse gas limits.
His comments come only a day after representatives of NRECA met with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.. who has begun circulating a utility-only bill with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
Here is EnergyGuardian’s Q&A with English:
EnergyGuardian: What’s the assessment of utility-only plans from Kerry and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., by the association if not individual co-ops?
English: We’ve got very serious reservations about a utility-only approach. We, quite frankly, don’t think it’s fair. By fair, we mean to single out one industry. But also from the standpoint that this is singling out different regions of the country for an unequal distribution of burden that might come about as a result of that. It’s a real problem, taking a utility-only approach, as far as we’re concerned.
EnergyGuardian: What do you mean, regional difference? Do you mean areas that burn coal compared to areas with renewable energy sources?
English: If you take the electric utility industry, that’s going to be the only industry that is brought under consideration under this legislation, obviously those areas that are emitting carbon in some other way, are not impacted. This goes back to those people who found themselves in a position, quite frankly, through economics and in some cases government requirements, that they are using coal fired generation and now they’re going to have to bear a burden of the transition.
And, they’re going to be penalized for the fact that in many cases they are doing what the government told them to do. You remember the Fuel Use Act…we were told at that time, I was in Congress, that we had to switch from natural gas to coal because of the fact that we were running out of natural gas. If you recall we had Three Mile Island, so we had all these regulations which economically made some of the power plants being built at the time, using nuclear, we were required to make a transition to something else.
What people were generally encouraged to do, in some cases forced to do, was to move from natural gas and nuclear into coal. Now we’re talking about going back the other way. So, this is a reversal of actions by government some 30 years ago.
EnergyGuardian: Of the 45 percent of the electricity delivered by co-ops that is generated by its membership, would you say all would be negatively impacted by a utility-only plan?
English: We do have some participation with investor-owned nuclear power plants, we don’t own any of our own. Beyond that we do have some natural gas, but most of the generation that was built by our people was in the period of the 1980s, that’s when we were running out of capacity and the government was pushing everybody into coal, or at least prices were pushing everybody into coal.
EnergyGuardian: Are you willing to push for no action on a utility-only bill now and work out Environmental Protection Agency regulations later?
English: That’s obviously the predicament we find ourselves in. No one wants to be in a position in which you are given two bad choices. We know EPA is not going to be good but we don’t know what the rules and regulations are going to look like. We know that every year the rules and regulations under the EPA will change, but again, we don’t know what those are going to look like.
What’s troubling us here is that if we establish a utility-only approach, what does that accomplish? That’s not going to solve or meet the objectives laid out by members of Congress, a 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions in this country over the next 10 years. You can’t do that with just one part of industry. It does absolutely nothing in addressing the difficulties of greenhouse gases in the world and climate change.
If this country is going to address this issue, it seems to us that this should be something the entire country shares rather then certain regions of the country.
EnergyGuardian: We understand that the Bingaman bill and potentially in the main Senate bill by Senate Majority Leader Reid, there may be an opt-in provision to allow industry to join the program. Does that make the approach any better if they offer that in return for EPA pre-emption?
English: Well, it’s not opt-in for electric utilities.
EnergyGuardian: Have you gotten a signal from Reid that he supports a utility-only approach?
English: At this particular point, we don’t. We noted that the majority leader identified a number of objectives in the legislation, so it’s our understanding that it’s not an all-or-nothing approach.
EnergyGuardian: It sounds like, though you stepped back from the House climate bill to see what the Senate would do, the Senate is simply not moving in the direction that can win the association’s support. Correct?
English: We feel like we’ve been very patient, we feel like we’ve worked in good faith with any members of the Senate that wanted to work with us on these issues, but at this particular point in time, it appears that this is not going to be an economy-wide approach. That is driving us very quickly to the point that no matter what’s in the rest of the bill, that’s just an unacceptable approach to take.
EnergyGuardian: If cap-and-trade is stripped out of the bill, do you see good legislation coming out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee energy bill?
English: There are areas that we think need to be improved, but it’s certainly something that we think is workable.
EnergyGuardian: Including the Renewable Energy Standard in that bill?
English: We’ve been talking to the Senate about some of our smaller systems. They haven’t addressed the fact that you have small utilities that will have a hard time meeting this. We would raise the questions of renewables and efficiency and why those two shouldn’t be interchangeable as far as goals and objectives are concerned.
EnergyGuardian: What would you say to the Senate leadership as they finalize their legislation, then?
English: Focus on what we can do realistically, make sure the goals are realistic, and make sure we have the tools and flexibility to meet those goals.
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