American Power Act summary out: the subsidy train continues

Natural gas fracking well in Louisiana, (c) 2013 Daniel Foster

Just last week, the Economist magazine noted in an editorial that:

However you measure the full cost of a gallon of gas, pollution and all, Americans are nowhere close to paying it. Indeed, their whole energy industry—from subsidies for corn ethanol to limited liability for nuclear power—is a slick of preferences and restrictions, without peer. The tinkering that will follow this spill will merely further complicate it.

As if on cue, out comes "The American Power Act."  For some reason, idle hands in Congress always find particular comfort in working on energy bills, and an early summary of the latest of a long line of government energy initiatives has just been released.  A short summary of that summary can be accessed here.  The American Power Act will dole out all sorts of goodies, with some huge potential gains to coal and nuclear power.

Before going into what the bill contains in giveaways, it is useful to note some of the key things it does not do.  It does not remove the government from the role of choosing technology winners and losers, and it does not build a neutral policy platform on which all energy technologies must compete for whatever public support is offered.  In fact, the bill summary views this not as a bug, but as a feature, noting that the bill is "investing in innovation across all energy sources."  Investing in everything is not a very good theory of change, as I've examined in detail previously.  Finally, it does not work to quickly establish greenhouse gas price signals for key energy and industrial sectors, but rather seeks to shelter them from these prices for many years.

In terms of the new subsidies in the bill, in depth analysis requires the specific legislative language.  However, some choice nuggets are already evident in the summary:


  • 5 year depreciation on nuclear reactors expected to last 60 years.
  • Formally increases Title 17 loan guarantees to nuclear by $36 billion, to $54 billion (there is an additional $2-4 billion above this total that is already in place for front-end facilities such as enrichment).
  • Introduction of a "loan guarantee retention fee" on nuclear loan guarantees, supposedly to expedite repayment of the guarantees.  (The language here is strikingly weak:  "to ensure that money is returned to the program as expeditiously as practicable").  The actual form and meaning of these fees is not clear from the summary however.  It could be a withholding from the loan guarantee amount (in which case firms will overstate need to create a buffer).  Also not clear is how the retention fee will interact with the credit subsidy payments already required.
  • A tripling of the coverage for nuclear delay insurance, from $2 billion to $6 billion in face value; covering 12 rather than 6 reactors.
  • Accelerated licensing and review procedures for new reactors, and elimination of some review steps.  How these complex projects can be properly overseen with the expedited process remains to be seen.
  • Increased research push on small reactors and fuel reprocessing.
  • Since production tax credits can only be earned once a plant begins operation, the bill adds a 10% investment tax credit that can be captured earlier, and likely even if the plant is never completed.  A 10% federal grant would be available to non-taxable entities involved with reactor construction, as such entities can't use tax credits.  Detailed legislative language is needed to see whether these can be combined with other subsidies, such as production tax credits, or much be used instead of them.
  • Allows nuclear to access Advanced Energy Project Credits, providing up to a 30 percent tax credit for manufacturing eligible project components (credits may be carried forward up to 20 years).  The credits have a national cap, so look for subsequent legislation to dramatically increase the available support.  The current cap of $2.3 billion is rounding error in nuclear projects, and remains low even after the APA's  additional $5 billion (Section 4003) in credits is included. 
  • Expanded use of tax-exempt private activity bonds in the nuclear power sector.  Because nuclear projects are so big, this provision may not be popular with other users of private activity bonds.  Usage of Build American Bonds (BABs), another tax-advantaged financing tool, by the Vogtle reactors is among the largest BAB projects in the country.
  • Allows existing production tax credit (PTCs) for nuclear to be entirely allocated to private participants on a project that includes both taxable and non-taxable entities.  This will increase the effective value of existing nuclear PTCs.
  • Extends suspension of import duties on imported nuclear components.  Although nuclear is touted as a solution to energy security concerns, many of the most expensive reactor elements are manufactured outside of the United States.


  • The bill provides some additional subsidies to advanced coal and carbon capture and storage.  However, the most valuable subsidies to the coal sector will likely come through the grants of emissions credits.  The impact of these schemes is difficult to gauge without more detailed language, but Section 1431 of the bill does indicate that where plants or utilities capture and store carbon, they will actually earn GHG allowances.  Under a strict cap and trade, such facilities would simply avoid the need to buy credits by reducing emissions. 
  • Section 798 appears to buy off up to 35 GW of premature closure of merchant coal plants by allowing them to continue to receive emissions permits even if the plant has been closed or repowered.  There is no detail suggesting that the buyouts will go first to the dirtiest plants (whether merchant or not), or require high levels of operations in order to be eligible.  The risk of this subsidy being gamed seems high.

Clean Energy Funding

  • Section 1801 establishes a "Clean Energy Technology Fund" to promote development of new energy technologies, though provides little additional details on eligibility, structure, or funding levels.  One concern is that the wording sounds like this could be an effort to implement some type of clean energy bank, along the lines of poorly structured earlier proposals for a Clean Energy Deployment Administration (critiqued here). 

Credit Offsets and Allocations

  • Title II of the bill attempts to establish some centralized vetting of offset claims, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that offsets are awarded for behaviors that actually reduce emissions.  This is a useful element of the bill, though likely extremely difficult to do well.
  • As with other climate bills, this one contains broad giveaways of carbon credits for a sizeable period at the inception of the new law.  As explained by Joe Romm, the bill also attempts to deal with credit price volatility through gradually increasing floors and caps.
  • Title IV provides widespread rebates and allowances to industrial emitters of GHGs, suggesting that key industrial sectors will see little price incentive to curb emissions.

"Fast" Mitigation of Hydrofluorocarbons

  • Though "extremely potent greenhouse gases," HFCs are to be reduced to 15 percent of baseline, but not for another 22 years.  Hard to imagine what "slow" mitigation looks like.

Oil and Gas

  • Section 1204 allows state opt-out of oil and gas drilling within 75 miles of its coastline (otherwise federal laws pre-empt state wishes).  While this provision was introduced in response to the recent Gulf oil spill, its actual protection of coastal resources may be more symbolic than real.  As of May 11th, the Gulf spill oil slick was 130 miles long and 70 miles wide -- enough to have blown through the proposed buffer zone.
  • Provides substantial subsidies to convert vehicles to natural gas (starting section 4121).  This is another example of government micro-managing technology selection.  The transport policies should be neutral with respect to any option (better engines, hybrids, electric vehicles, improved fleet management) that reduces oil demand.

Update:  The full bill, in all 987 pages of glory, has now been released.  It will obviously take some time to go through.