Politics & Policy

California’s Pro-Nuclear Renegade

Micheal Shellenberger discusses climate and nuclear power at a TED Talks event in Banff, Canada, June 2016 (Bret Hartman/TED)
Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuclear Democrat, makes a longshot bid for California governor.

If California’s upcoming gubernatorial race gets decided solely by money, Michael Shellenberger doesn’t have a chance.

The latest campaign filings show that Shellenberger, an environmentalist from Berkeley, has about $37,000 in cash on hand. The frontrunner in the June 5 California primary, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, has more than $16.6 million in the bank. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running second in the polls, has about $5.9 million.

Polls show Shellenberger running fifth. When I talked to him on Monday, he said his fundraising efforts were picking up. “I’m up to $50,000 now,” he bragged. Shellenberger, a lifelong Democrat, may be cash-poor, but his campaign represents a stark break with Democratic-party orthodoxy on energy policy, and that alone makes his candidacy important. Shellenberger is among the world’s foremost advocates for nuclear energy, and one of the fiercest critics of renewables. While his pro-nuclear stance separates him from nearly every other Democratic politician, his willingness to call out fellow Democrats on energy policy has made him one of the most important voices on the left — particularly in California, where, by 2030, the state’s utilities must obtain half of the electricity they sell from renewable sources.

In addition to advocating for nuclear energy in California and elsewhere, Shellenberger is calling for reforms to housing policy and pensions. He wants to triple the rate of new housing construction in the state. He also wants to address California’s pension obligations, which now stand at some $366 billion. Name one other politician who dares utter the words “pension reform.”

In addition to advocating for nuclear energy in California and elsewhere, Shellenberger is calling for reforms to housing policy and pensions.

Author and demographer Joel Kotkin has been writing about California politics for many years. He told me that Shellenberger is “focused on the biggest issue in California, which is the erosion of the middle class and lack of social mobility.” Kotkin said that California has become a one-party state where policy decisions are dominated by “the urban land speculators who benefit from housing policy, greens, unions, and the oligarchs. Everyone else is a bit player.” Shellenberger, says Kotkin, “understands that this has become a rigged game. Make housing and energy more expensive, you hurt the middle and lower classes.”

Before going further, I should disclose that I’ve known, and admired, Shellenberger for about a decade. He has long been willing to tweak conventional wisdom, particularly when it comes to energy and climate issues. In 2004, along with Ted Nordhaus, he wrote an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism,” which called out groups such as the Sierra Club for their focus on fundraising rather than policy results. The two went on to found the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based research think tank that consistently turns out top-notch analysis on issues ranging from agriculture to climate change. About two years ago, Shellenberger split with Nordhaus and launched a new organization, Environmental Progress, a Berkeley-based think tank that advocates for nuclear energy.

Last month Environmental Progress released a report, co-authored by Shellenberger and energy analyst Mark Nelson, showing that between 2011 and 2017, California’s electricity prices rose five times faster than rates in the rest of the country. Californians now pay about 60 percent more for their electricity than residents of other states. Shellenberger lays the blame for the state’s soaring energy costs on the its governor during those years, Jerry Brown. High electricity prices are a form of regressive taxation on the poor, Shellenberger told me. In addition, he said, “It gives lie to the reality of renewables. It shows that high penetration of renewables result in high electricity costs not just in California, but all over the world.”

Electricity prices matter in California, which has the highest poverty rate in the country. In 2015 my colleague Jonathan Lesser, the president of Continental Economics, authored a study for the Manhattan Institute (where I’m a senior fellow) that found that in 2012, nearly 1 million California households faced “energy expenditures exceeding 10 percent of household income. In certain California counties, the rate of energy poverty was as high as 15 percent of all households.”

Despite those facts, California politicians continue pushing for more renewables. On his campaign website, Newsom says that “on his first day in office,” he will “issue a directive putting California on a path to 100 percent renewable energy. It’s achievable and it’s necessary.”

Shellenberger’s candidacy has received some favorable press. The San Francisco Chronicle recently called him “the kind of wonky, engaged person people should want in government, especially because he isn’t afraid to take on his fellow progressives.” Despite some positive squibs in the Bay Area press, Shellenberger may be excluded from the upcoming gubernatorial debates. Earlier this month, more than a dozen energy and environmental experts — including climate scientist James Hansen, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, Nobel Prize–winning scientist Burton Richter, and University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. — sent a letter to the state’s biggest newspapers asking that Shellenberger be included in those debates. “Without endorsing all of his policy positions, we believe his participation in the debates would be salutary for California’s democracy.” They continued: “Relying on money raised as a deciding variable allows wealthy candidates, and those who have taken significant quantities of funding from special interests, to effectively buy their way into debates.”

During our conversation, Shellenberger admitted that he faces long odds in the gubernatorial race. But he said his decision to run was motivated by a desire to change the discussion and create a “new politics that is not about identity, or scarcity, it’s about abundance, a unifying economic vision along with a moderate view on immigration.” He went on: “Identity politics is the opiate of the California masses.” Working-class people in the state “can’t afford housing. We have the highest rates of poverty and homelessness and yet all people want to talk about is identity politics and immigration raids.”

‘Identity politics is the opiate of the California masses.’ — Michael Shellenberger

To nearly any observer, it’s apparent that Shellenberger has little chance of moving into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. The movie-star-handsome Newsom has both name recognition and virtually limitless money. Villaraigosa also has name recognition and will be popular among California’s Hispanics, who account for 28 percent of the state’s voting population.

In spite of the odds against him, Shellenberger’s decision to run for office is a brave one. More than perhaps any other person on the left, Shellenberger has been adamant — some would even call him a zealot — in his advocacy for nuclear energy. His zeal has fueled significant victories, including in South Korea, where he nearly singlehandedly forced the government to have a citizen jury decide the future of the country’s fleet of reactors. Last year, the jury decided in favor, which allowed continued construction of new reactors. South Korea is also a major exporter of nuclear technology. Later this year, the first of four reactors being built by Korea Electric Power Company will begin generating electricity in Abu Dhabi. When completed, the new Barakah nuclear plant will be the world’s largest single nuclear project, with 5,600 megawatts of capacity.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the nuclear sector is reeling. Reactors in California, New York, Vermont, and other states are being prematurely shuttered. And as those reactors are shuttered, the juice they were producing is being replaced with electricity from natural-gas-fired generators, thereby increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Shellenberger has repeatedly underscored the hypocrisy of the Left and big environmental groups — the Sierra Club, 350.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council — for their efforts to shutter nuclear reactors while at the same time demanding drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Shellenberger has won plenty of detractors during his stint among the greens, and now in politics. To judge from the amount of money he’s raised in his race for governor, it’s clear he doesn’t have many donors. But in his passion and willingness to speak the truth about electricity prices and the fashionable but expensive renewable-energy mandates that are driving those prices yet higher, he has become a consumer advocate as well.

If I lived in California, I’d vote for him.

Robert Bryce — Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author and producer of the forthcoming book and documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

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