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Bill may not transform energy economy

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Kai Ryssdal: Washington is still digesting the Senate energy and climate bill that was released yesterday. What it’s going to mean for manufacturers, power companies, nuclear plants, offshore drilling — there’s a little something in there for everybody. The ultimate goal, of course, is to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Trick is, it’s kinda hard to do that if we keep on using fossil fuels the way we are. So, does this legislation help get the United States off coal, oil, and natural gas?

Sarah Gardner reports now from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

Sarah Gardener: Tyson Slocum is director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. He says if you think this legislation will transform our energy economy, don’t hold your breath.

Tyson Slocum: This is a bill that reflects a mantra of “don’t rock the boat,” don’t upset large utilities or the coal industry. And if you need to accommodate those interests, you’re not going to get an effective climate bill.

Slocum says Senate Democrats have made so many concessions to the fossil-fuel industry in order to garner support, they’ve essentially maintained the status quo. He says the bill expands offshore oil drilling, shells out $2 billion a year to Big Coal for so-called “clean-coal technology” and contains no federal mandate for a renewable electricity standard. That’s where the government makes utilities get a certain percentage of their power from sources like wind and solar.

David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council says yes, compromises have been made, but the bill does place a federal cap on carbon pollution for the first time ever.

David Doniger: That alone tilts investment very sharply in favor of cleaner fuels. It doesn’t make sense to invest in old coal plant technology when you have to carry the costs of controlling the carbon pollution.

The bill also provides $54 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. Nuclear’s a controversial power source, but one that supporters say still does help to shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels. Harvard’s Robert Stavins:

Robert Stavins: If one is trying to address global climate change then surely part of the portfolio of action going forward is going to be nuclear power.

And Stavins says natural gas will be part of that transition because it’s cleaner than oil or coal. But whether this bill lets carbon prices go high enough to make fossil fuels a turn off is another question.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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