Update: After this article was posted Sept. 22, Republican leadership reconsidered its decision to remove Sen. Lisa Murkowski from her position as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. For now, she will keep that top spot.
WASHINGTON—If the winds blow the way Sen. Jeff Bingaman is predicting, it will mean Congress has the fortitude, gumption—and most importantly the Republican votes—to make a 15 percent renewable electricity standard a reality during the lame-duck session after the midterm election.
Though the New Mexico Democrat was flanked by just one Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, when he announced the introduction of the measure at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday afternoon, he told reporters he is confident other GOP senators will follow suit.
One such Republican could be Lisa Murkowski. Bingaman’s announcement came on the same day that GOP leadership was in the midst of stripping the Alaskan of her role as the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee because of her decision to run for re-election as a write-in candidate Nov. 2.
“We hope the House will see the wisdom of passing it if we are able to pass it through the Senate,” said Bingaman, who is known to be so careful and thorough that he doesn’t offer predictions unless he knows he can deliver the goods.
Each Congress is Different
Bingaman's stand-alone, 43-page bill, which is so new it doesn’t yet have a number, is known as the “Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010." Targets and timetables are similar to previous legislation. It requires utilities nationwide to deliver 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, or by ramping up energy efficiency, by 2021. Utilities selling fewer than 4 million megawatt hours annually are exempt.
This version sets the inaugural year at 2012 instead of 2011 because a year has elapsed since the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill that didn’t make it to the Senate floor. Qualifying renewables include wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, hydrokinetic, waste-to-energy and new hydropower at existing dams.
Attempts to pass a renewable electricity standard in both chambers of Congress has been a cat-and-mouse game. During this Congress, the House approved a measure that the Senate snubbed. However, the previous three Senates approved measures that the House rejected.
“This is critical for the security and the future of America,” said Brownback, who appeared sartorially correct at the news conference by sporting a light purple tie featuring wind turbines. “It will drive the production of homegrown renewable energy.”
“The beauty of this is that it’s not cap and trade,” said Brownback, who is running for the governorship in Kansas. “This is a responsible, bipartisan approach … balancing economic and energy needs.”
Other Republicans on Board?
Brownback said he is drumming up support. Thus far, Republican Sens. John Ensign of Nevada and Susan Collins of Maine have signed on as co-sponsors of this bill, Bingaman said about gathering 60 votes to make the legislation filibuster-proof.
“People can’t get cute with this,” Brownback said, adding that he would likely pull his support if the bill becomes larded up with amendments on the Senate floor. He added, for instance, that he held off on adding an ethanol measure to the bill to keep it as simple as possible. “If things get on that are extraneous you’re going to see people shuck off of it.”
In addition to Brownback, Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Murkowski voted “yes” for the RES provision included in the energy bill that passed out of Bingaman’s committee last summer. Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Olympia Snowe of Maine are known to be RES supporters, though they are not members of the energy panel.
If GOP leadership has its way, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina will replace Murkowski as the energy panel’s ranking member through Election Day, according to a report in The Hill newspaper. Even if Murkowski wins the election, regaining her committee post would likely be a long shot.
Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and cousins Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado joined Bingaman and Brownback during the Tuesday announcement. They agreed that the stand-alone legislation provides a roadmap for energy security and jobs to boost the nation out of its economic doldrums.
Bingaman figures he can count on support from most of his fellow Democrats, though he might have trouble convincing skeptics such as Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to come aboard. Democrat Mary Landrieu has also announced that any energy legislation up for consideration this session would need to include BP oil spill response measures and relief to hard-hit Gulf Coast states to garner her support.
“This is a way to jumpstart homegrown jobs,” Tom Udall said, adding that the fastest job growth in his home state of New Mexico is in the renewables sector. “It’s a chance for us to start making things again here in America. We have to have a target and we have to have a goal.”
Support from a Range of Quarters
Praise for the newest Bingaman-Brownback RES measure came from all quarters Tuesday, including United Steelworkers, energy companies and environmental organizations.
Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that although the bill is far from perfect it at least offers an avenue for the power sector to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Renewable energy technologies could be creating thousands of jobs, especially in the southeastern states,” Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta Energy said via news release. “With a bipartisan RES back on the table, the Senate has a chance to support those jobs.”
The District of Columbia and 28 states, mostly in the Northeast, Midwest and far West, have adopted varying degrees of renewable electricity standards. If the Bingaman-Brownback bill passes, states without an RES or with lower requirements would have to follow the federal standard. States with more stringent renewable requirements, however, could keep them in place.
Denise Bode, chief executive officer with the American Wind Energy Association, cited a 2007 study by global energy consulting firm Wood MacKenzie concluding that electricity prices would decrease by 7 to 11 percent by 2020 with a 15 percent RES.
“China is open for business and it’s now the most attractive market for clean energy businesses, which means our jobs could go overseas,” Bode said. “This bill sends a signal to manufacturers that the time is right to invest in and grow their operations here in America.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story reported that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) supported the energy bill that passed out of Bingaman's committee last summer. While that is accurate, "Senator Sessions remains opposed" to the RES portion of it, a representative from Sessions' office clarified on Sept. 23.