GOPer Offers Alternative Climate Plan: More Nuke, Less ‘Energy Sprawl’

Lamar Alexander (TN), the GOP's third-ranked leader in the Senate, today unveiled an energy plan that is intended to serve as a counterpoint to the climate change bill being assembled by senior Democrats. His proposal focused largely on one promise: 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years.

horse_hollow_wind_farm.jpgWind farms require a lot of open land ... but is that an argument for going nuclear instead? (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

The Obama administration has offered loan guarantees to four in-development nuclear plants, at a cost of $18.5 billion.

Alexander's expansion would take that price tag to $50 billion, he told reporters today, in addition to the potential cost of starting "a mini-Manhattan Project" to recycle spent nuclear fuel.

Alexander's pitch is part of a larger GOP energy agenda that includes more incentives for offshore oil drilling and more funding for R&D, particularly on vehicle electrification -- a concept likely to encourage greater use of coal-industry mining methods that the senator has long decried.

That Republicans are lining up to oppose cap-and-trade climate legislation is hardly shocking to congressional watchers. But tucked in Alexander's speech was a surprising new aspect to his party's message:

We should want an America producing less carbon. I believe we shouldn't be throwing 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year. And that means less reliance on fossil fuels.

... Finally, we should want an America in which we're not creating energy sprawl by occupying vast tracts of farmlands, deserts and mountaintops with energy installations that ruin scenic landscapes. The great American outdoors is a revered part of the American character. We've spent a century preserving it. There is no need to destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment.

Energy sprawl? What the ...?

The term refers to the land-use impact of building new renewable energy installations, both on wildlife habitat and quality of life for human populations. Generating solar and wind power requires large tracts of land, as Alexander likes to point out, and even some of his Democratic colleagues have questioned the Obama administration's push to use more than 1,000 square miles of public land for green energy.

What Alexander didn't mention, however, was that most environmentalists don't share his view on the need for a nuclear boom to help avert "energy sprawl."

"We don't think energy sprawl considerations mean something is taken off the table," Rob McDonald, a vanguard scientist at the Nature Conservancy who works on the issue, said in an interview.

"To some extent," McDonald explained, lawmakers' climate efforts are "picking winners or losers in a future energy market. As they're doing that, they're determining how much land use will happen and where. It’s a solvable problem -- it's just a problem Congress needs to think about a bit more."

The solution, as outlined by McDonald, is to plan ahead with local governments for smarter land use in solar and wind development -- not halt such development outright.

Moreover, there's an odd political echo in hearing Republicans lament land use for renewable power as environmentally destructive. Many conservatives lambasted Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and his family members for opposing a wind power installation near their home in Cape Cod. The Kennedys, as it happens, cited quality-of-life concerns similar to those driving the "energy sprawl" debate.

At the very least, however, Alexander's nuclear-expansion plan may put to rest suggestions that adding nuclear subsidies to the Senate climate bill could win his vote for the final Democratic package. Even if the legislation included all of his nuclear priorities, Alexander told reporters, he would not vote for cap-and-trade emissions regulations.