California lawmakers extend life of nuclear plant, approve slate of climate bills

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FILE PHOTO: A flock of goats walk on a hillside above Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant at Avila Beach, California in this June 22, 2005 REUTERS/Phil Klein/

By Nichola Groom

(Reuters) -California lawmakers on Thursday voted to extend the life of the state's only nuclear power plant by five years, and approved several other measures to bolster the state's already aggressive climate change policies and shore up its fragile power sector.

The set of bills mark a victory for Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who had made a push in recent weeks to pass climate legislation that could match Congress' approval last month of the biggest climate change law in U.S. history.

It also bolsters the administration of President Joe Biden, which is seeking to subsidize financially strapped nuclear power plants to delay their retirements and keep clean power online, and rally support for ambitious climate action.

Among the series of last-minute votes, California's lawmakers reversed the state's 2016 decision to retire PG&E Corp's Diablo Canyon power plant by 2025 and approved a $1.4 billion government loan to extend its operation to 2030. The measure will help keep emission-free power on line in the midst of ongoing tight supply that has threatened blackouts.

It also allocated more than $50 billion to clean-energy investments, codified a mandate to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045, and set a target of generating 90% of its electricity from clean sources by 2035.

In a blow to the fossil fuel industry, lawmakers also approved a ban on oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet (975 m) of structures including homes, schools and hospitals. The measure applies to both new and existing wells if they are re-drilled or altered. More than 2.7 million people in California live within 3,200 feet of a producing well, according to the bill's author.

Finally, the legislature also approved a bill to develop standards and streamline permitting for carbon capture projects.

The Diablo Canyon extension and carbon capture bills were opposed by several environmental groups, though they broadly praised the legislature's action on climate change.

"California is lighting the way to a bright future powered by renewable energy, including wind, solar, and battery storage," said Laura Deehan, director of green group Environment California. "We know we will see even hotter heat waves, more severe droughts, and fiercer wildfires if we don’t act on climate. The Legislature took significant steps today to change that trajectory for the better."

The legislature failed to pass one bill championed by the governor. It would have adopted more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets for the most populous U.S. state.

The governor's office was not immediately available for comment. Newsom is up for re-election in November and is viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

California wants to produce all of its electricity from clean sources by 2045, but has faced challenges with that transition, such as rolling blackouts during a summer heat wave in 2020. Nuclear energy generated by Diablo Canyon accounts for about 9% of the state's electricity and nearly a fifth of its carbon-free power.

Newsom wants PG&E to apply for new federal funding to keep nuclear power plants open longer by a Sept. 6 deadline. PG&E cannot apply for the funding without a change in state law.

California has said the federal government is expected to cover most or all of the cost of the $1.4 billion loan.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los AngelesEditing by Kim Coghill and Matthew Lewis)