As Nuclear Subsidy Bill Goes Down, Top Dems Ratchet Up the Rhetoric

Tom Johnson | January 5, 2018 | Energy & Environment
War of words erupts between Sweeney and Prieto, extends to Gov.-elect Murphy

Senate President Stephen Sweeney
The fallout from the collapse of the nuclear subsidy bill yesterday reignited a long simmering feud between top legislative leaders, while threatening to muddy Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s clean-energy agenda.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto traded stinging barbs in separate statements, as prospects for legislation to prop up Public Service Enterprise Group’s nuclear power units faltered and the Secaucus Democrat refused to post the bill in the last days of the lame-duck session.

The unexpected move came after Murphy was enlisted to convince Prieto to hold the bill, a step clean-energy advocates sought because the measure failed to include incentives for renewables and energy efficiency — investments the governor-elect made a priority in his campaign.

Off the rails

That unexpectedly derailed a bill seemingly on the fast track for passage, infuriating the Senate president, who sponsored it. “Disappointed? No, I am downright angry,’’ he said in statement that lashed out at the turn of events as an example of Prieto’s “valueless word.’’

Sweeney, who vowed to press efforts to stabilize nuclear power plants in New Jersey, also took a swipe at Murphy. “If the governor-elect has concerns with the legislation, then it is news to me, because his transition team has had the bill for over a month, and there has been no expression of concern or desired changes,’’ Sweeney said.

Prieto said he never promised to post the bill, only agreed to committee hearings. “That testimony clearly showed there are many concerns from consumers, environmentalists, and businesses about this proposed legislation and its impact on New Jersey taxpayers,’’ he added.

“That’s why this bill and its considerable subsidy was never posted for a vote in the Assembly,” Prieto said.

Applause from opponents

For that, he drew praise from the bill’s opponents. “It’s hard to say no in Trenton,’’ observed Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “The speaker put a brake on a runaway nuclear bailout.’’

Murphy’s spokesman, Dan Bryan, said the governor-elect is committed to building a 100 percent clean-energy economy by 2050, while believing the existing nuclear facilities remain a vital link to the future. “He looks forward to working with all parties in the Legislature to pass a bill that includes nuclear and clean energy components,’’ Bryan said.

That goal may be more complicated than it seems, according to some.

“The governor will have a true challenge in choosing his energy future,’’ said Steve Goldenberg, an energy lawyer who was among the more vocal opponents of the nuclear subsidy bill, which would have provided up to $300 million a year in ratepayer subsidies to the plants.

New Jersey ratepayers already ante up about a half-billion dollars a year to support the state’s solar programs, and that cost could soar if the state decides to aggressively promote offshore wind — another campaign priority of Murphy’s.

“Consumers are not a bottomless pit,’’ warned Goldenberg. “There’s a breaking point.’’

With the nuclear subsidy bill apparently killed in the lame-duck session, it may emerge quickly in the new session after Murphy’s inauguration on January 16. In a statement, PSEG vowed to continue to press lawmakers and policymakers about the economic threats facing their nuclear plants, which have trouble competing with cheap natural-gas generation.

PSEG’s warning

The company has warned the plants may close without incentives, a prospect that it says would lead to increased air pollution, reduced resiliency, and higher energy bills. “These risks warrant greater attention, as well as action that extends beyond the boundaries of any legislative calendar,’’ said Michael Jennings, a spokesman.

If the bill fails to be revived in the current session, which ends Tuesday morning, it makes figuring out how to divvy up various subsidies for nuclear, offshore wind, other renewables, and energy efficiency all the more daunting.

“It doesn’t make life easier,’’ acknowledged O’Malley. “With an independent analysis, however, the nuclear subsidy may not end up as rich as it once was.’’