Q&A: Shimkus to Move Bills on Yucca, Coal Ash, TSCA

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Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy, told Bloomberg BNA's Anthony Adragna in an exclusive March 18 interview that he has a busy congressional session planned. Immediate priorities include moving legislation on the management of coal ash and reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act by the House's summer recess. Shimkus also plans to visit the Yucca Mountain site in early April with House colleagues and move legislation on nuclear waste management this session. Although the House and Senate are in contact about most of these priorities, Shimkus said they are not coordinating on them and will have to resolve differences in conference committees. Concerned about the EPA Clean Power Plan, the Illinois Republican said he is intrigued by the idea of legislation that would delay enforcement of regulations until legal challenges had been exhausted, but he said he has no immediate plans for a bill like that. 

Interview with Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy

Bloomberg BNA:

You've been called everything from a pro-Yucca Mountain “fanatic” to “the enemy” of the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada. What do you make of those attacks?

Shimkus:

When people resort to personal attacks and name-calling, there must be some truth in the message. And, I mean, I'm fine.

Bloomberg BNA:

You'll be leading a congressional trip to the site in early April. How many people will attend, and what do you hope to accomplish through that?

Shimkus:

We really don't know the number. A lot of folks would be coming, but they've already committed to a deepwater tour with [House Majority Whip] Steve Scalise (R-La.). That's a great tour to go see an oil rig in the Gulf, so I can't blame them.

The trip is very important for people to really see how far away the mountain is from Las Vegas, to see how far away the mountain is from the government property line and how it's a mountain in a desert.

Bloomberg BNA:

What would you like to get done on Yucca this year, and what are your options for doing that?

Shimkus:

There's some authorization language that has to be addressed, and that's what we hope to move. Those [issues] have been well-vetted.

I know I have got some enemies in the state of Nevada, but I have some friends. I've been to Yucca Mountain twice—once when it was an operating Department of Energy facility and once when it was closed. And, I'm telling you, Nevada was receiving a lot more revenue when it was open than when it was closed.

The other thing is my friends from Nevada like to spin is the story that this stuff is going to come down the [Las Vegas] strip. That's just crazy talk. But we'd like to work with them to identify routes, to build rail spurs, to build interchanges, to be able to get the spent nuclear fuel—or the Defense waste—safely, to a secure location.

It'd be great if they'd be helpful in identifying that location. They don't have to be supportive, but this represents a lot of federal money and jobs for the state of Nevada. This is a long-term commitment of billions of dollars to the state of Nevada, and we're not trying to be mean or abusive. We're just trying to follow the law.

Bloomberg BNA:

Some Republicans in the Senate have said Yucca is only part of the solution and that there may need to be other facilities. Is that something you agree with?

Shimkus:

We've had a lot of discussions in the bicameral nature of our legislative process where, if you look at right now, you have about 70,000 metric tons [of nuclear waste] already, and that's what Yucca is certified for. And we're still generating it, right? So the question is, will there need to be another long-term geological repository? That's part of that debate.

I really believe in the process of moving bills and going to conference. If the Senate comes through with a bill that addresses some of those concerns, we'll move a bill that addresses our concerns, and we'll see where we can meet the middle.

Bloomberg BNA:

Does the shift of Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a long-time opponent of Yucca, and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), critical of some Toxic Substances Control Act reform efforts, into the minority help the chances of getting bills done this year?

Shimkus:

I was very fortunate to be over on the Senate side just before they had their hearing. To the credit of the senators involved—that's really Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D–N.M.)—they have done the work needed in their process to have a bipartisan bill. Not just a bipartisan bill that's defined as one Democrat, but a bipartisan bill that's defined as a lot of Democrats. And that's really important to their process.

So I'm optimistic that Leader McConnell can move a bill like that.

Bloomberg BNA:

Have you looked at the bill itself? What do you make of it?

Shimkus:

Well, I think it's similar to what they were working on in the last Congress. I think they made a few tweaks. Sen. Udall is a good friend of mine. He is an unabashed supporter of ensuring that the health and protections are in there for the communities. No one questions that.

So, we'll have to move our bill and we'll have to see where we can go. But they've done a ton of work and I want to give them credit for that.

Bloomberg BNA:

What other sorts of priorities are you pushing this year in your subcommittee?

Shimkus:

Well, we've already done an algae bloom bill that we passed by suspension. Now, we're moving on to coal ash provisions, which the markup is next week in subcommittee.

Following that, we're already starting on the TSCA process, internally, and that'll be the next schedule item. We'd like to see both those bills definitely out of committee, and I'd like to see them off the floor of the House, by the summer break.

Once they get out of my committee, the workload goes down a little bit and then we can start dealing with some language on nuclear waste.

Bloomberg BNA:

And, in terms of TSCA, is this something that can get done this Congress? Is this the best opportunity for reform?

Shimkus:

Absolutely. This law hasn't been touched—except for a court case—since 1976. No one thinks it's working. So, you got to believe we can fix it. Maybe not in total, but at least do a better job than we're doing now. And I think that's what is bringing the bipartisan group together—it can't be worse than what we already have.

Bloomberg BNA:

But Sen. Boxer retires in two years. She's obviously been a big obstacle in getting TSCA reform done. Would it be easier to get something done after she's left?

Shimkus:

In this business, you don't delay for a future Congress, not knowing what that Congress would look like.

Bloomberg BNA:

What about the prospects of coal ash legislation in the Senate? Do you think the bill you will pass in the House can attract enough Democratic support over there?

Shimkus:

The other thing I've learned—it's been a fun experience—is how to deal with certain bills with the other chamber. I've talked with Sen. [John] Hoeven (R-N.D.). He knows what we're doing.

Sometimes you've just got to move a bill. I got a schedule. I got a clock. He knows what we're doing. We're in close conversation. But then it'll be upon their shoulders to do whatever they need to do and how they need to do it.

TSCA is one where we've been working very closely. We know exactly kind of what the Senate has been doing and they know our direction. Them moving first with the hearing and the bipartisan bill is very helpful to us and appreciated.

On nuclear waste, you've got [Sen. Lisa] Murkowski (R-Alaska) involved and trying to decide what kind of bill to move and how. And we'll let her do that while we do our thing. Those are probably more separate. I think staff knows what's going on.

Bloomberg BNA:

Is that process working where you operate in your own orbits and then converge later on?

Shimkus:

I taught government. I still believe in the system. How a bill becomes a law is you don't pre-conference bills, I mean, by the book. You can, but let's do our work.

I believe you can change and modify things as you go through the process. When we start moving these bills officially, you'll hear gnashing of teeth and the statement will be, ‘This will destroy the world' one way or the other. And the reality is that's just the first bite—subcommittee. And you get the next bite—full committee. Then you probably get the next bite on the floor. Then you got to go to conference, you can change it again. If the president would decide to get involved in negotiations, he may through his comments to the conference committee decide to tweak things.

So, we got to move a bill to get this thing started. On all three of those issues. We're working hard and it's enjoyable to try to legislate.

Bloomberg BNA:

What else can we expect from the full committee on the EPA Clean Power Plan?

Shimkus:

I don't know that answer.

Bloomberg BNA:

What do you make of this strategy that states should just say no to complying with the rules? Leader McConnell has advocated for it.

Shimkus:

I find it interesting. I'm intrigued. I don't know much about it. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a constitutional scholar.

There are a couple of issues: forcing states into regional compacts and crediting each other for their generation or lack of generation [of greenhouse gas emissions], or the issue of having the federal government come in and make that decision if you decide not to.

If they go that direction [of forcing a federal plan] or a court case where you still have to comply with the rules and the regulations at the time, that's concerning.

Bloomberg BNA:

That's true of a lot of these regulations, where people have to comply before the court cases are decided.

Shimkus:

I was thinking about this in the hearing. Why not write—the president has to the sign the bill, that's why—why not write a bill that says let's let the court decide before we enforce the rules?

Bloomberg BNA:

No plans for something like that?

Shimkus:

That's why you have hearings. But the reality is, would the president sign that bill? Probably not.

Bloomberg BNA:

There's been some talk from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) about moving a brownfields reauthorization bill this year. Would you support something like that.

Shimkus:

I'd be excited. Ranking Member Pallone and I have a great relationship. Anytime you can try to reach out and find some common ground to move an issue like that—he's from New Jersey, so he's got a lot of facilities—to get property in the condition to be used rather than sitting idle, that's got to be something everybody would support. The devil is always going to be in the details.