Anthony Scopatz

I think, therefore I amino acid.

The Other Side of Anti-Science

Two nights ago I went to EPIC (Energy Policy Institute at Chicago) and saw Congressman Bob Inglis (R, South Carolina) give a talk.  The congressman has a very interesting recent history in the public sphere.  In the elections in 2010, he was the incumbent who was defeated in the primary by Congressman Trey Gowdy for not being “Republican” enough despite his rather conservative background.

What likely tipped the balance was his stance on climate change.  Unlike the less empirical arm of his party, Congress Inglis believes both that global climate change is occurring and that it is being caused by human activity.  Spurred to action he co-authored a bill to institute a carbon tax, which obviously was never passed into law.  The bill had three important features:

  1. Stop all federal subsidies for electricity generation,
  2. Lower payroll taxes…
  3. …and instead institute a carbon tax by the corresponding amount (revenue neutral).

The carbon tax would start at $15 / ton of Carbon and be raised to $100 / ton over the next 100 years.  (Carbon effects are typically priced at $30-50 / ton.)  Of note is that this strategy permanently lowers taxes as we (presumably) move away from carbon-based technologies and the payroll taxes are not replaced.  That Bob Inglis was ousted from the Republicans on behalf of this bill is nothing short of ironic.

I had the pleasure to speak with the congressman semi-privately in a breakout session after the workshop.  While most of his talk was about how to convince people you need to communicate with them on a one-on-one basis and appeal to “their hearts, not their heads, ” I was more interested in specifics of his proposal.  (Note: he was at EPIC in part to drum up support over the long term for this bill.)  One important point that was brought up in the meeting was that the abolition of subsidies might place an undo burden on the poor.  Those on marginal incomes often rely on cheap oil and gas for basic survival.

Still, there were two nuclear specific issues that I think have to be dealt with in this context.   First is the ever-present waste issue. The Department of Energy (DOE) has the legal obligation to manage and dispose of all of the legacy waste.  It would be foolhardy to believe that a carbon tax bill would somehow change this.  However, just a smoke & mirrors threat to the status quo could be fearful enough to turn many people against the bill.  The congressman seemed to think that this was a non-issue.

The second technical question I had, for which there was no answer by the congressman, was what exactly was meant by subsidies.  It was well understood that direct, monetary subsidies would be eliminated.  But what of indirect subsidy-like instruments such as the federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants.  Arguably no new nuclear plants would be built if the insurance companies themselves were not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.  It doesn’t help that the mortgage crisis and the collapse of the global economy has put into view what happens when such guarantees are called upon.  It puts the industry in a troubling situation whether the loan guarantees stay or go.  It would either be special treatment or impossible to fund new projects.

The last interesting point was that he served on the Committee on Science and Technology during the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission.  Naturally, I asked him about their findings.  He did remember the hearings on the topic but his general impression was that it was to appease the electorate of Senator Harry Reid.  This aligns well with my general view of the BRC situation.

In the end, I agree with the Congressman’s tax plan as a generally good idea.  Still, there are clearly some provisions to be hammered out and the devil is always sneaking around the details.