E&E News


Future fees 'walled off' in revised House bill

Geof Koss, E&E News reporter

Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) will defend nuclear waste legislation on the House floor this week. Bipartisan Policy Center

A broad overhaul of federal nuclear waste policy that is expected to pass the House this week takes steps to shield ratepayer fees that were intended to pay for the repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., from budgetary pressures that have contributed to the long-standing impasse over the site, a key lawmaker said yesterday.

The House is expected to vote Thursday on H.R. 3053, which chief sponsor Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) told reporters yesterday has been stalled for months over an obscure budgeting dilemma that dates back decades.

When Congress in the 1980s designated Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for the nation's nuclear waste, utilities began collecting fees from ratepayers to pay for the disposal program.

While the Energy Department stopped collecting the fees during the Obama administration in response to litigation, Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified last month before a House panel that the balance of the fund was almost $40 billion.

But those funds have always been subject to spending limits, meaning they have to compete with other federal priorities in the annual appropriations process.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used his clout to starve Yucca of funding, very nearly killing the project outright during the Obama administration.

"When you have real dollars going into an account, most people would expect those dollars to be used for the intended purpose," Shimkus said yesterday. "That's not what has happened budgetarily."

Yucca supporters have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to take the project's funding "offline" - or separate it from the normal process - thereby allowing the dollars to flow.

Furthermore, legislation that aims to protect the nuclear waste funds from the whims of appropriators faced another hurdle, given that the billions of dollars in the funds also offset the federal deficit.

An earlier version of Shimkus' bill would have made some funding from the nuclear waste fund mandatory - a position that appropriators have long been wary of, given that they prefer to have a say in how federal monies are spent.

That's held up a floor debate until this week. The revised bill, which will be the subject of a Rules Committee hearing this afternoon, abandons efforts to make nuclear waste fund monies available "without further appropriation."

Instead, it makes several changes to protect future funds from spending travails that have dogged Yucca Mountain in the past. When the waste fees are reinstated after nuclear waste is actually received at the repository under the law, those funds would be credited as "offsetting collections" for activities related to waste disposal.

Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office is instructed in the bill to score future fees as a "credit" in spending bills.

"This mechanism allows the fees and appropriations to be tied together, operating in unison year-to-year, making collections and spending have a close relationship," states a summary of the revisions.

"What we've done in this bill is to be more honest brokers with the fees that are collected," Shimkus said, noting that under the revised bill, the fees are "in essence walled off."

Still, he conceded that he had preferred the mandatory treatment of his earlier bill. "I lost that fight," Shimkus said. He also said the fate of the existing balance of the waste fund will be revisited down the road.

"We still have some budget reform issues that need to occur on a larger scale than this bill," he said.

Prospects for bill

Shimkus, who has been fighting to open Yucca Mountain for years, said he expects "a pretty good vote" in the House this week.

However, he said that he doesn't expect the Senate to take up the measure this year, given that Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller is up for re-election and is considered vulnerable.

Shimkus also said he hasn't spoken recently with anyone in the Senate about his bill.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is part of a group of four senators who have been working for years on nuclear waste policy, said yesterday that group has yet to meet this Congress.

"We're not in a position to be passing anything this week or next," she told E&E News, although she noted she has spoken separately about nuclear waste issues with two other members of the group, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Those two are the top senators on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees DOE; Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is the authorizing panel that oversees DOE.

"Maybe this will prompt some more discussion amongst us," she added.