Is Sen. James Inhofe changing his tune on climate change?
An editorial that the Oklahoma Republican penned last week for CNN titled "Obama should embrace nuclear energy" has sparked rumors that he’s going soft on his infamous disbelief in human-caused global warming.
The White House is promoting its work "to fend off climate change, while strategically ignoring its largest tool to cut carbon emissions — nuclear energy," Inhofe wrote in the April 22 editorial, adding that the administration’s Clean Power Plan is "biased against" nuclear power.
"While I have long fought back on attempts for the federal government to tax carbon, I believe in an all-of-the-above energy strategy that provides our nation with energy security, and I have supported legislation that helps to clean the air," Inhofe wrote.
He added that the administration shares those interests and "believes in man-driven global warming, which should make nuclear energy its golden key. But the Clean Power Plan and the President’s recent executive order demonstrate that the Obama administration is neither serious about reducing carbon emissions nor pursuing an all-of-the-above energy strategy."
Based on the opinion piece, one Australian newspaper wrote that Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, appeared to be "changing his mind" on climate change. The paper noted that the senator cited NASA climatologist James Hansen’s support for nuclear power and backed the energy source as an effective means of cleaning the air.
"Jim Inhofe, the man known as one of America’s most staunch climate deniers, appears to be coming round to the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence," the Sunshine Coast Daily wrote Sunday.
Republican strategist Mike McKenna said the editorial is indicative of tension within the Republican caucus between trying to improve the Clean Power Plan and scrapping the proposal altogether. The GOP, he added, is getting pulled in different directions by parts of the utility industry keen on improving the proposal — delaying implementation and pushing back compliance dates — and by more conservative elements seeking to kill the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut power plant carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030.
"There’s zero doubt in my mind that Sen. Inhofe thinks the rule is an epically bad rule that shouldn’t be pursued. There’s also zero doubt in my mind that if the rule is pursued, it should account for nuclear correctly," McKenna said. "And those two things are in conflict."
Despite the ruminations, Inhofe spokeswoman Donelle Harder said the senator — infamous for lobbing a snowball at a Senate page in February to disprove warming and for calling human-caused climate change a "hoax" — hasn’t changed his position one inch.
Instead, Harder said, Inhofe was using his platform as EPW chairman to shine a bright light on the Obama administration’s hypocrisy of citing climate change as a force more dangerous than terrorism while not relying on the emissions-free, baseload power of nuclear reactors within the Clean Power Plan. Oklahoma has no operating nuclear reactors.
"He still holds that man is not driving warming," Harder said, adding that the senator has backed clean air provisions in the past. "Does he believe the climate is changing? Yes."
Inhofe in the editorial said the Clean Power Plan is an "energy policy plan" and not a carbon-reducing plan, based on its treatment of nuclear reactors. The senator said the proposed rule’s best-case scenario assumes no new nuclear construction and indicates the retirement of 96 of the country’s approximate 100 plants by 2050.
The industry has long argued that nuclear reactors deserve more credit under the plan, and U.S. EPA officials have hinted they may incorporate some significant changes in response to a drumbeat of stakeholder sentiment on some key issues (E&ENews PM, April 6).
Inhofe accused the Obama administration of turning its back on nuclear power and faulted the White House for not listening to Hansen, who in 2013 called on environmental groups to embrace nuclear power and warned that solar and wind cannot be deployed fast enough to tackle climate change (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2013).
"President Obama’s EPA has shifted its position on nuclear energy and hidden that policy shift in a model," the senator wrote.
Other Republicans have made similar criticisms.
Following a devastating earthquake and tsunami that crippled three reactors on Japan’s northeastern coast, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called on the United States to move forward with nuclear power. And since taking the Senate helm, McConnell has been lobbying states to boycott the Clean Power Plan.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, is one of the staunchest supporters of nuclear power in the upper chamber. Alexander earlier this year laid out a broad agenda for revitalizing the industry through a series of hearings and new waste legislation, all while vowing to block tax incentives for wind energy (Greenwire, Feb. 5).
Republicans don’t have the 60 votes needed to totally block the climate rule, based on the budget vote-a-rama and Keystone XL vote series so far (E&E Daily, March 27).
EPA has said the characterizations of an anti-nuclear administration are off base.
Liz Purchia, a spokeswoman for the agency, said nuclear power is part of an all-of-the-above energy policy and a diverse energy mix, and that current and future plants can help the United States meet climate goals.
EPA, she said, recognizes the unique challenges of nuclear power, including waste, mining issues, upfront high costs and safety concerns.
"The 60 nuclear power plants in 30 states that are safely and reliably producing baseload power at a low cost make them useful potential elements of a state plan to meet their carbon emissions rate reduction goals," she said.