Vice President Cheney dismisses role of renewables and supports nuclear and coal power

In a preview of the conclusions of his task force compiling a new national energy plan, Vice-President Dick Cheney, called for more nuclear power plants, dismissed the possible contribution of renewable energy and affirmed continued reliance on coal and oil.

In a speech given to the annual meeting of the Associated Press in Toronto on 1 May, Cheney said that although renewables are “promising”, they are “years down the road”, and that “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Instead, as he revealed in a recent interview (see related story), the soon-to-be-published energy plan is expected to call for the construction of the first US nuclear plants since 1979’s accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania put a freeze on the industry’s further development, which, to this day, supplies 22% of US electricity.

“If we are serious about environmental protection, then we must seriously question the wisdom of backing away from what is, as a matter of record, a safe, clean and very plentiful energy source,” Cheney reportedly said. In addition, 10 senators led by Republican Senator Pete Domenici are sponsoring a bill to encourage new nuclear plant construction and remove barriers to nuclear power plant licensing. No reference was made to nuclear power in the nine-point energy plan contained in the Republican’s pre-election manifesto.

In his speech Cheney said that over the next two decades, it will take between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants, or one every week for 20 years, just to meet projected increases in nationwide demand. Coal, he said, remains the most available and affordable way to generate electric power. The Bush administration has budgeted an additional $150 million for next year, up from $82 million this year, to support development of cleaner coal technologies.

Cheney also said that the administration must become more self-sufficient in oil production, a clear reference to his known stance on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Environmentalists and many Democrats are understandably concerned about Cheney’s comments. Some of Cheney’s critics suspected the large contributions made by the energy industry to the Bush presidential campaign and his background as an oilman explained his stance on fossil fuels. Two Congressmen, John Dingell of Michigan and Henry Waxman of California, have asked for an official inquiry into whether Cheney is being influenced by private interests.

“His solution to increase America’s reliance on fossil fuels is the pollution solution,” commented David Doniger, a senior attorney at the NGO, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The fact is we can meet our energy needs, and save consumers money, without despoiling pristine wilderness areas or rolling back environmental protections.” Doniger pointed to a recent NRDC report which found that increasing average fuel economy for cars and light trucks to 39 miles per gallon would save at least 15 times more oil that could be economically recovered from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain over the 50-year lifespan of the oil fields.

The organisation also criticised Cheney’s warning that, without a “clear, coherent energy strategy,” California’s electricity woes (see related story) may foreshadow the future for the rest of the country, saying that the state’s problems are a product of its “uniquely flawed deregulation scheme”, and not to clean air regulations or the lack of domestic oil, as only 1% of its electricity comes from oil-fired power plants. “Scaremongering about California is not a responsible way to talk about US energy needs,” said Doniger. “We can meet our energy needs and protect the environment at the same time, but not with what Mr. Cheney proposes.”

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