Energy Bill Update
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A little bit later we'll be looking at electronic voting and then a conversation with Neil Gershenfeld about the concept of the fab lab.
But first, this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill dealing with energy and water spending. The bill included some surprises, including a major cut for spending on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site. But what the bill did not include was any mention of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Instead, language that would allow drilling in parts of the refuge was attached to a budget bill. Now that was a maneuver that supporters of the measure thought might shield it from the opposition, but the drilling measure was removed from that bill later in the week after House leadership decided that they didn't have enough support among Republican moderates.
Joining me now to help us wade through all of this is Mary O'Driscoll. She's a senior reporter with the Environment & Energy Daily and Greenwire. Those are publications based in Washington, where she joins us by phone.
Welcome back to the program.
Ms. MARY O'DRISCOLL (Senior Reporter, Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire): Thank you very much, Ira.
FLATOW: What's going on here?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, it's just some maneuvering by members of Congress. There's a very big push this year to get ANWR through Congress, the legislation opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. And they really feel like this is the time that they have to strike, that everything is set and they just need to do it. And they're doing it through the budget process because they know that they cannot get a stand-alone piece of legislation through the Senate. So they're doing it through the budget process, and it got hung up with budget politics in the House.
FLATOW: So does it look like it might show up in a committee somewhere down the line?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, what they're looking to do is if the House can pass this budget resolution, even without the ANWR legislation in it--the ANWR piece in it, is that--the hope is that they'll be able to attach it to the conference report once they get the entire House and Senate negotiation completed and that they can get the conference report out of the House and the Senate because you cannot make any changes to a final report like that. And so that's what the hope is. That's what the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Pete Domenici, who's been doing a very big push on this over on the Senate side, is hoping that the strategy can be. However, their immediate plan is that they need to get the budget reconciliation bill out, and they do seem to be having a lot of trouble with that.
FLATOW: Now the energy bill that passed earlier this week cut funding for Yucca Mountain significantly.
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Yes.
FLATOW: What happened there?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, it's been interesting politics on a lot of those fronts. The appropriations had been held up with the Army Corps of Engineers funding for the projects, you know, tied up into the whole hurricane situation with Katrina and Rita. And the Yucca Mountain funding has been a real hot potato for many years. Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader in the Senate, he's from Nevada and a staunch opponent of the Yucca Mountain Project, and he's been able pretty much, pretty single-handedly, to starve funding for the program. And so what he was able to do--what he and Senator Domenici and the House chairman, David Hobson of Ohio, were able to do was negotiate something that reflected the fact that Yucca Mountain is running into a lot of delays, a lot of problems with legislator delays, funding delays, legal delays, licensing delays. This was supposed to open by 2010. They're now looking at 2015, and now you'll find that no one at the Department of Energy will even give you an estimate of when the repository will open, because these delays are just pretty severe.
So this reflects the fact that they're nowhere near ready for what they thought they were going to be ready for, so the funding is being cut back. And they're also looking at some significant changes in policy. The legislation directs the Department of Energy to start a program of trying to identify sites around the country that would like to host facilities where they could recycle waste. This is kind of reprocessing, but it's an advanced reprocessing technology that would not be as prone to non-proliferation concerns as the original ones. And so it's a very interesting process. It's looking more and more like Yucca Mountain--the nature of Yucca Mountain is going to be changing because they are having so many problems with the program itself and because the science is starting to change, too, that there's a real push now. A lot of people are talking about reprocessing/recycling.
FLATOW: Yeah. We should do more on that because that is the new technology. I heard a physicist talk about it the other day.
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Yeah.
FLATOW: You could recover a huge amount of the fissionable material from there...
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Exactly.
FLATOW: ...without having to make new stuff.
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Right. Right.
FLATOW: And what about other DOE, Department of Energy-sponsored research programs? They got cut, too, did they not?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Yeah. It was pretty much to be expected, you know, with the money as tight as it is, that there were some other cuts as well. But a lot of the focus, the real focus, has been on Yucca Mountain. That's been what everybody's been looking at, just because of the enormous political and legal pressures that they've been under for the past several years.
FLATOW: So is the deficit and Katrina a fact that would inflate the amount of money the government needs to spend? Has that played a big role in all these cuts here?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, it depends. Katrina's played a role in some portions of the bill, as I explained regarding the Army Corps of Engineers, but what's really happening, too, is the realization that they need to change some policies, is that there are some real pushes for policy changes regarding Yucca Mountain. However, what's really interesting, though, is that some lawmakers are starting to raise questions about this because they're doing a lot of these policy changes in a spending bill, and these policy changes really have not gone through the channels in Congress that they usually go through. And so there are some real distinct policy changes, as I said, toward reprocessing, recycling of waste.
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: And so that these are likely to get a lot of questions in coming months.
FLATOW: Yeah. Considering the president's standing in the polls, do you think that this is one of the reasons why some of these people on Capitol Hill are showing possibly a little bit of boldness they didn't show before?
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Oh, very probably. I think you're seeing a real change in people's attitudes. I mean, you're seeing that Republicans are standing up on the tax bills that--the tax part of the reconciliation process that is coming out. And, you know, of course, then you're seeing the Republican moderates, you know, flexing their muscles in the House on the--by holding up the House vote that was supposed to have taken place on the entire reconciliation bill. And now everything's been put off till next week. Now, you know, there's a lot of negotiations going on in the back rooms...
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...and a lot of people trying to convince others to change their minds. But really, there's a very distinct attitude change, and it's--you know, the factions that had not really been heard from very much lately are really starting to exercise their muscles. And you're also seeing, really, a remarkable show of unity on the part of the Democrats.
FLATOW: Yeah. Mary, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us. We'll check back with you later.
Ms. O'DRISCOLL: OK. Thank you so much.
FLATOW: Mary O'Driscoll is a senior reporter with the Environment & Energy Daily and Greenwire, and she's based in Washington, DC.
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