In what is likely to be the opening salvo of a nasty legislative battle, lawmakers are to convene early next week to discuss how to prevent New Jersey's nuclear plants from shutting down prematurely.
The bigger question is whether they also are planning to act on a yet-to-be-introduced bill that some say could provide billions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies to Public Service Enterprise Group over the next decade.
The Senate Environment and Energy Committee and Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee plan to hold a rare joint session Monday on economic challenges facing nuclear power plants, an issue that is splintering the energy sector not only in New Jersey but in Washington and elsewhere.
News of the joint hearing this week jolted a coalition opposed to efforts to prop up nuclear units.
They fear the proceedings foreshadows a legislative initiative to award lucrative financial incentives to PSEG and Exelon (a co-owner of two of the plants) during the lame-duck session, which ends early in January.
"We've seen this special-interest strategy before on bad bills," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an opponent of subsidies to nuclear plants. "It's how a bad bill gets passed in a lame-duck session."
Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D., Mercer), chairman of the Assembly committee, discounted that scenario at least for now: "At this point in time, I don't have a bill."
Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Senate panel, did not return a call seeking comment. He has been guarded about the subject, saying only that the issue is being studied.
A quick fix is possible if the political will is there. The Legislature only has seven scheduled days in the current term. Foes say the issue is too important to be tackled in a lame-duck session.
"I haven't seen a bill of this magnitude go through this quickly in this kind of time period," said James Benton, longtime executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council. "There's a lot of information that we don't have at this point."
To opponents, that includes a more informed look at the finances of the nuclear plants operated by PSEG, which the company concedes are profitable today. Given economic trends in the energy sector, however, they could no longer be cash-flow-positive in the near future, according to the company.
In a statement, PSEG said it looked forward to a thorough consideration of nuclear power's role in New Jersey.
"The current market structure does not recognize the resiliency and environmental benefits that nuclear provides," said Michael Jennings, a spokesman. "Those benefits are substantial and losing nuclear would have significant consequences for the state."
Jennings added that the company believes it will ultimately cost consumers less to preserve nuclear than replace it. The three plants provide electricity to 3.8 million homes in New Jersey.
New Jersey would not be the first state to financially back nuclear power plants. Both New York and Illinois have approved ratepayer subsidies to keep nuclear units operating in those states. In the former, the subsidies amount to nearly $1 billion over two years.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pushing a plan to bail out coal and nuclear units before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to act on the proposal within two weeks.
For more than a year, PSEG has been lobbying policymakers and legislators for financial help to keep its three nuclear plants in South Jersey afloat.
The company's executives say the units, which provide nearly half of the electricity in the state, are important as a carbon-free source of power as well as crucial to ensuring reliability of the grid.
The economic challenges confronting coal and nuclear are being driven by cheap natural-gas supplies, which have made it difficult for the other fuels to compete with gas.
Critics say the issue has too many implications for the energy sector to decide what needs to be done so quickly.
"With the incoming Murphy administration, the future of the nuclear industry should be part of a broader energy planning process - and New Jersey ratepayers shouldn't get stuck with a bailout in the final weeks of the Christie era," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
For more stories by Tom Johnson on New Jersey energy and environmental issues, go to njspotlight.com.