It is a 150-page amendment to a 174-page bill and arrived on my desk last week - a day when the Senate was voting on 67 other bills. The bill is up for a vote before the full Assembly this today.
The bill is known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The idea is to move us in to a new renewable energy economy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels - especially coal. These are laudable goals. Most everyone agrees we need to move to a renewable energy economy. The question is how to get there.
The amendment to the Clean Energy Jobs Act substantially changes the original bill. There are a lot of questions and few clear answers at this point.
One of the more controversial aspects of the bill is whether we should remove Wisconsin's prohibition on nuclear power. The bill changes state law to allow the building of new nuclear power plants; the amendment reduces safety standards and increases the potential permissible size of new nuclear plants.
The original bill required plants be built only to meet the power needs of their customers - allowing for smaller nuclear plants to provide local electricity. The amendment allows power companies to build larger, regional plants that could sell power outside their own territory.
The bill clearly says limiting the size of nuclear plants is the best way to ensure safety, protect consumers and limit the problems of nuclear waste. Yet the language requiring a limit on size is eliminated in the amendment.
Curiously, the environmental groups that sent alerts to their members asking them to contact their legislators to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act do not mention the provisions in the 15 pages of the amendment that change nuclear power laws.
I share concerns with others that we must precede with care down the path of nuclear power. Residents of many states have seen large rate increases after such plants were built and construction cost over-runs were passed on to rate payers.
And we still do not have a plan for the permanent disposal of radioactive spent fuel rods.
It is also unclear just how much the requirement for the creation of in-state renewable energy has changed in the amendment and what effect this change will have on the creation of new jobs in Wisconsin, which has become the main political argument for passing the bill.
The dangers in fast-tracking a bill of this magnitude are many; but the biggest problem I see is this: Not only do legislators not have adequate time to read and understand the bill, but the people of the state are not able to debate, understand and provide input before a vote.
There are no easy answers. In moving to an economy fueled by renewable energy, trade-offs must be made. Everyone understands legislation will not be perfect and some problems are going to take years to solve, but we do need to understand the particular trade-offs being proposed as this bill is being amended.
These are the choices we will have to make when we vote: How much do we want to rely on hydro-electric power from Manitoba as the prime way of bringing Wisconsin to a 25 percent renewable energy standard by the year 2025? Do we want to allow new nuclear power plants? Do we want to accept the reduced safety standards and increased size of the plants as proposed in the amendment? Does the amendment still do what the original bill intended to do, and is this the best we can achieve?
There are a lot of questions and few clear answers at this point.
Vinehout represents the 31st District in the Wisconsin Senate.