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Gas supply issues, future of nuclear fleet dominate Q2 US utility lobbying

Nuclear energy and natural gas pipeline siting and security woes were key focuses of major U.S. electric utilities' federal lobbying efforts during the second quarter of 2019, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the U.S. Senate.

The emphasis on those issues comes amid gas' ascent to become the single largest source of U.S. electric output and as nuclear plant retirements raise pressure on electric generators and lawmakers to support investment in advanced reactors and agree on a long-term nuclear waste storage policy.

In the second quarter, representatives of five of the top 10 U.S. electric utilities by market capitalization — Duke Energy Corp., Dominion Energy Inc., Southern Co. Inc., Exelon Corp. and Xcel Energy Inc. — met with members of Congress or congressional staff regarding S. 903, entitled the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, or NELA. A companion bill, H.R. 3306, was introduced in June in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bipartisan legislation, which also was introduced in the prior Congress, seeks to boost U.S. nuclear energy innovation and help commercialize advanced reactors. Among other things, the bill directs the Secretary of Energy to create a 10-year strategic plan for aligning the federal government, national labs and industry on research and development goals. The legislation also would enable the government to sign up to 40-year power purchase agreements with developers of next-generation nuclear plants, beyond the current maximum federal power purchase limit of 10 years.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted in mid-July to advance NELA along with over 20 other bills, but Senate leaders have yet to schedule floor time for the bill.

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Electric utilities lobbied congressional lawmakers during the second quarter on bills to solve a decades-long nuclear waste storage stalemate and to support the development of advanced reactors as older U.S. nuclear plants close or struggle financially.

Source: Associated Press

Lobbyists for NextEra Energy Inc., Duke, Exelon, Xcel and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., known as PSEG, also went to Capitol Hill during the second quarter regarding legislation to overcome the decades-long stalemate over how to permanently dispose of commercial nuclear waste. Among other bills, the utilities discussed the bipartisan Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019, or H.R. 2699. Senate lawmakers also released a discussion draft of the bill in that chamber in April.

The proposal would allow formal licensing to resume on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a project the Obama administration halted over environmental concerns. H.R. 2699 also would allow the U.S. Department of Energy to move forward with a temporary waste storage program to consolidate spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear plants while the Yucca Mountain project advances.

The House passed a prior version of the legislation in 2018 but has yet to vote on the bill in the current Congress. Although the bill has Republican and Democratic cosponsors, Nevada lawmakers have fought to block any legislation that would restart the Yucca Mountain project, causing utilities to mull other nuclear waste storage bills as well.

In the second quarter, representatives of Duke, Exelon, Xcel and PSEG lobbied on S. 1234, or the Nuclear Waste Administration Act, which would establish a "consent-based" approach to obtaining siting approvals from local communities.

Lobbyists for Exelon also met with congressional staff on the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act, numbered S. 649 in the Senate and H.R. 1544 in the House. The bill from Nevada lawmakers would require the consent of the governor, local governments and tribes in affected areas in order to spend money from the Nuclear Waste Fund for construction of a nuclear waste repository.

Gas siting, security concerns loom

While utilities grapple with market headwinds for nuclear plants, the rapid growth in gas-fired generation has presented its own policy demands and challenges for the power sector.

In the second quarter, lobbyists with NextEra, Duke, Dominion, Southern, Sempra Energy, Consolidated Edison Inc. and PSEG met with federal agencies and congressional staff on security, siting and safety issues for pipeline development.

Bills on big utilities' radars included H.R. 3432, or the Safer Pipelines Act of 2019, which would reauthorize the U.S. Department of Transportation's pipeline safety program. Industry experts have expressed concern with the bill's proposal to no longer require the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to conduct agency-specific cost-benefit analyses of its rules.

Democratic supporters say eliminating the requirement will remove regulatory delays while ensuring that PHMSA regulations remain subject to the same economic analyses as other major rules. But industry critics said the cost-benefit analysis ensures that regulations do not place undue burdens on customers without a measurable improvement to safety.

The legislation also would restore citizens' ability to pursue legal action if PHMSA does not fulfill its statutory duties and would allow criminal penalties for pipeline companies found to "knowingly or recklessly" break the law, according to a press release from the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill cleared the committee's energy subcommittee but has yet to come up for a vote in the full committee. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the upper chamber's PHMSA reauthorization bill in late July, which included measures to prevent accidents like the gas-fueled explosions and fires that killed one person and damaged dozens of homes in northern Massachusetts in September 2018.

Along with pipeline safety, utilities met with federal agencies and lawmakers on permitting issues for Dominion's troubled Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC project, which is designed to move Appalachian gas to markets in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. In December 2018, a federal appeals court struck down the U.S. Forest Service's authorization of the project, dealing a major blow to the pipeline. A group of 15 states recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn the appeals court's decision.

Other matters

Although nuclear energy and pipeline siting and safety were key focuses, utilities turned their attention to plenty of other federal policy issues in the second quarter.

Generators lobbied on implementation of the federal tax reform in 2017, including with regard to interest deductibility and provisions affecting regulated utilities. Power companies also met with legislators on bills to extend or provide new tax credits to nuclear power, renewable resources and energy storage; update the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which mandates power purchases from small renewable and cogeneration facilities; and to create federal clean electricity standards.

Utilities also lobbied on climate change issues generally, including a resolution calling for the creation of a Green New Deal to shift the U.S. to carbon-free electricity and a bill to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Senate blocked a vote on Green New Deal measure and has not voted on the Paris bill despite the House's passage of the legislation.