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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fixation on high gasoline prices ahead of the 2012 election will likely distract U.S. lawmakers from doing more than piecemeal energy legislation in the next 18 months, the chief executive officer of Duke Energy Corp, one of the nation's largest electric companies, said on Wednesday.
A "short attention span" in Washington works against efforts to advance long-term plans to cut reliance on fossil fuels and increase investments in other types of energy, Jim Rogers said on the sidelines of a nuclear industry conference.
"I don't see us really doing anything meaningful on energy and environmental policy in this Congress, for a variety of reasons," said Rogers, who was a vocal supporter of last year's failed bill that would have put a price on climate-changing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
Gasoline prices have soared beyond $4 per gallon, and lawmakers and the White House have been absorbed with that piece of the energy challenge.
"We've got a very short attention span in the United States. It wasn't so many years ago that the gas price was over $4, and we made all these statements that we were going to wean ourselves from oil," Rogers said.
"We really didn't do anything. And here we are again with the price over $4," said Rogers, who said he is talking with players to try to help lay the groundwork for a long-term energy policy beyond the 2012 election.
Utilities facing stringent environmental regulations are looking to replace aging coal-fired plants with cleaner technologies fueled by natural gas, renewables, and nuclear.
High capital costs involved with building new power plants has driven consolidation in the sector.
Duke is working to complete a $13.7 billion acquisition of Progress Energy which would make it the largest U.S. power company, if it wins approval from regulators.
Duke is moving forward with the licensing process for a new nuclear power plant in South Carolina, and hopes it is approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late 2012 or early 2013, Rogers said.
The goal is to have it running by 2020-21, he said, noting nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases or pollutants and, unlike solar or wind plants, can run continuously.
Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster will prompt some changes to improve U.S. nuclear safety, Rogers said.
"All of us in the industry are pausing and trying to learn from what happened in Japan," he said, listing back-up power systems and storage of nuclear waste as areas of focus.
"I think we'll also look at our protocol in terms of how long we keep spent fuel in the pools. Maybe a consequence of this is to accelerate after a five-year period in the pools a movement ... into dry cask storage," he said.
Progress Energy has plans for new plants in Florida and North Carolina, but decisions on those plans will depend on the economy and demand for electricity, as well as how fast the merged company will need to retire aging coal plants, Rogers said.
The timing of new nuclear plants could also depend on the availability of natural gas, currently a cheaper option due to new supplies recovered from shale rock, he said.
"The shale issue -- the question is, is it real or is it a mirage?" Rogers said.
Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" used to drill natural gas out of the rock is controversial, with "unanswered questions" about its impact on water supplies.
"We need to get the answers to those" questions, he said.