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Former EPA chief touts nuclear power

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman keynoted the Charlotte Chamber’s annual Energy Summit on Friday.

Whitman was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush. She’s now co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, an industry-funded group that promotes nuclear power.

Whitman talked Friday with the Observer about nuclear power, fracking for natural gas and climate change from the perspective of a moderate Republican. Her comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Why has the nuclear renaissance not bloomed?

A. Largely because of the abundance of natural gas and the ability to get at shale gas. That’s driven the price down so that when the utilities are looking at where they’re going to make their biggest investments for the quickest return, it’s going to be in gas at the moment. There’s still 14 to 17 (nuclear construction) projects sitting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, waiting for permitting approval, but the utilities have not been pushing them to get through the approval process like they were before, because of the focus on natural gas.

Q. Why would a Duke Energy pursue nuclear when natural gas is cheaper?

A. That’s the key – it is (cheaper) right now. They’ve been there before, they’ve seen this cycle. The price is where it is because we appear to have lots of it, but it is a finite resource that’s not going to be there forever. They’re going to come back up on the market and drive the price up, and if the price is good enough overseas we’re going to start shipping overseas; and that’s going to drive up the domestic price.

The important thing here is to remember that you don’t want to count too much on the short term, you’ve got to think of the long term, too, and that means we’re better off with a more diversified power source. When you start to look at baseload power, the 24/7 power that we all need, then you’re at fossil fuels or nuclear. And when you then add to the equation the increased focus on air quality and climate, that gets you back to nuclear. Nuclear is 19 percent of our energy mix today, and I think that’s right where we should keep it.

Q. Is natural-gas fracking being pursued prudently?

A. It’s sporadic. I am on something called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which is partially utility-driven and partially environmentally driven, and it’s setting standards that go beyond anything required by regulations. But once they agree to it, (companies) do agree to be monitored and provide information on things like the closed-loop system for water. We’ve got to be careful about it.We don’t know everything yet, and there are going to be places where fracking is just not going to be a good idea. The best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t frack at all. But we’re going to, it is happening, and we’ve been successfully doing this for decades.

Q. Are regulations strong enough?

A. We could use some more. That’s what we’re trying to do at CSSD, come up with a reasonable system that the companies can achieve. The irony is that the major operators are pretty good stewards. They don’t want to mess up because they know how that would affect them long term and affect the ability to continue the process. It’s the wildcatters you get in this business – they’re the ones that you’ve got to get at.

Q. Is coal dead?

A. It’s 48 percent of the power supply today, and we’re not going to be able to replace that overnight. It’s going to be interesting to see the new EPA regs, carbon and that sort of stuff, how they survive court challenges and things, because it’s going to be hard to bring new coal (plants) on and retrofit the old ones. You’ve got a lot of livelihoods depending on it; and what are you going to do with them? You can’t just sayonara, too bad. So you’ve got to work your way through that, but we don’t invest in clean coal technology the way we need to.

Q. Do you expect the EPA’s new carbon dioxide emission rules to apply to existing plants?

A. I expect eventually they’re going to go back at the old ones to some degree. They kind of have to. If it’s bad, it’s bad and they can’t sort of say it’s bad for health but only the new ones.

Q. What’s your view of climate change?

A. Climate change is real. If you don’t think that, you haven’t been outside or read the newspaper or watched television for the last couple of years. We are getting more frequent, more severe storms and droughts and floods, all of that. But Earth’s climate has been changing since it was formed. We had an ice age. That went away, and we weren’t around to screw that up. However, to think that what we’re putting into the atmosphere is not having an impact on climate and Earth’s ability to regulate itself I think is being naïve. The point is, the climate is changing, the sea level is rising, we’re losing the ice caps, and we need to prepare.

Q. How do you explain the conservative Republican response to climate change?

A. The response is mindless. It is absolutely clear now – you can’t find a credible scientist who says that climate change isn’t occurring. You will find a difference as to what degree they believe the human impact is exacerbating a natural trend.

It was Ronald Reagan who made climate change a regular part of the National Security Council agenda. (Republicans) should own environment anyway if you go back to the first public lands set aside, Abraham Lincoln and Yosemite, and then you have Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon who established the EPA. It’s our issue. It’s more a (current) reaction to, we don’t want government anywhere, anytime, anyhow that the hard-line libertarian streak is fueling.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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