Vilsack’s Energy Policy Legacy

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

LAKE MACBRIDE— Does Tom Vilsack’s 2007 consulting agreement with MidAmerican Energy matter any more? It does, but not in the way conservative pundits characterized it, as a form of political corruption, after President Obama appointed Vilsack to his current job as secretary of agriculture.

The case can be made that beginning in 2003, then governor Tom Vilsack was a driver in governmental policy that created a regulatory environment for Iowa’s growth in renewable energy. Particularly in wind powered electricity generation. MidAmerican Energy was a key partner with Iowa government in developing wind farms in Carroll and Crawford Counties, and in other parts of the state. Most people agree, wind energy, along with ethanol production and biofuels development, have been good for Iowa. Vilsack should be given credit for his policy contributions to the development of Iowa’s renewable energy capacity.

At the same time, Vilsack was promoting all forms of electricity generation in Iowa, so the state could become a net exporter of the commodity. His advocacy for coal, natural gas and nuclear power generation is often forgotten, and resulted in a favorable regulatory environment for utilities to consider, and in some cases, build new coal and natural gas fired power plants. The release of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere by these new plants contributes to warming the planet and the liability of its climatic consequences. Tom Vilsack gets some of the blame.

Vilsack’s consulting relationship with MidAmerican Energy was said to help the company develop renewable energy sources, but it would be naive to believe the conversations he had with his client did not include coal, natural gas, nuclear and other sources of energy, especially since Vilsack made an issue of them as governor.

Why would Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy pursue the legislative changes required in Iowa to make an investment in nuclear power more palatable to Wall Street investors? It is because Tom Vilsack started the conversation. His Oct. 12, 2006 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is evidence of this. Vilsack said,

“In the last seven and a half years we’ve had six new power plants built, some of them state-of-the-art coal and natural gas facilities. We have embraced renewable energy and have now become the number one state in the country for wind energy per capita. And we, of course, have expanded dramatically our interest in ethanol and soy diesel, to the point where the state of Iowa is now the number one producer of each.

And we’ve been able to do this by working with the private marketplace and private sector in partnership. We changed regulations to provide greater stability for our utility companies so that they make the billions of dollars of investment to build new plants.”

If we consider HF 561, an act relating to the permitting, licensing, construction, and operation of nuclear generation facilities, from Iowa’s 84th General Assembly, the legislature attempted to do exactly what Vilsack said in 2006 was the intent, to provide a regulatory environment to attract investment money in new nuclear power plants. From the CFR speech,

We should take a look at the long-term impact of nuclear. […] we ought to be looking at ways in which either the risk (of nuclear waste) can be matched with opportunities that folks are looking for, or that we can create a compensation system that makes it easier for people to assume and accept that risk.

Vilsack sought to open a door that was closed for decades with regard to new nuclear power and its radioactive waste. He started the conversation. When the people of Iowa saw how the conversation would develop, that the high risks of nuclear power would be borne by rate payers so that Wall Street would invest, they saw through MidAmerican’s ploy and rejected the changes proposed by the legislature.

By then, Tom Vilsack was in Washington, but his energy legacy lived on back in Iowa.