WASHINGTON—When describing Sen. Jeff Bingaman, observers on Capitol Hill are quick to utter such accolades as considerate, thoughtful and practical.
The lanky and cerebral New Mexico Democrat's pragmatism is now under the political microscope of the nation's capital as he warms up to the idea of crafting a clean energy standard that the business world can embrace and the green movement won't shun.
Plus, with a GOP-heavy 112th Congress, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee knows he has to engage in new math. With 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans serving on his own rearranged committee, he first has to win a majority there before any measure can advance to a Senate where the Democratic caucus has just a 53 to 47 edge.
Bingaman's Wednesday afternoon meeting in the Oval Office sends a signal that President Obama is counting on the senator's savvy.
"It is quite clear to me that the president expects energy policy to have a major place on this Congress's agenda," Bingaman told reporters via e-mail after the White House meeting that came just a week after a State of the Union address, where Obama called for utilities to garner 80 percent of their electricity from sources such as solar, wind, natural gas, nuclear and so-called clean coal by 2035.
"Both the president and I agreed that Congress has a real opportunity to work together on bipartisan legislation to advance our energy and economic security," he wrote.
Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at Third Way, recently co-authored a white paper promoting a clean energy standard as a solution for weaning the country off such high reliance on fossil fuels and boosting green technologies on the homefront.
For Third Way, a think tank that advances moderate policy ideas, the Senate and not the Republican House, is the chamber to initiate a clean energy standard. And Bingaman is an ambassador delivered by central casting.
"He's exactly the person to move this type of idea," Freed told SolveClimate News in an interview. "He listens, he understands how to build a consensus, he knows the members of Congress and what their needs are, and he’s focused on the long term of this ambitious but achievable goal."
Defining Clean: Is a CES a Sellout?
The idea of creating a clean energy standard (CES) that adds nuclear, natural gas or coal with carbon capture and storage to the renewables mix makes environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Environment America cringe. They are longtime proponents of legislation that is more along the lines of covering wind, solar, ocean tides, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, hydrokinetic, waste-to-energy and new hydropower at existing dams.
Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, understands why some conservationists are uncomfortable with this new direction. However, his organization is remaining open-minded.
"No, I don't think Bingaman has lost his mind," Wentworth said in an interview with SolveClimate News. "He's a pretty considerate guy."
"We will not oppose such a standard," he continued. "But I don't know if we are at the point where we can say we're supportive. We don't know what it is yet."
Neither Freed nor Wentworth want a national CES to override what 27 states and the District of Columbia have accomplished thus far by scripting their own mandatory renewable portfolio standards. Most of those states are in the Northeast, Midwest and far West.
In fashioning an 11-page document about a CES, Freed said he took special pains to address the valid concerns of environmentalists.
"I don't want to appease them, I want to engage them," he said about appealing to green groups. "Yes, the drive to clean energy has moved forward over the last two years. But we need to make that much bigger. We need to score bigger legislative victories to get that done.
Practical Turnaround for Bingaman
Barely five months ago, Bingaman stood with outgoing Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), now governor of Kansas, to introduce a bipartisan bill geared at encouraging growth in the wind, solar and other renewables via an all-encompassing renewable electricity standard.
The Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 would have required utilities to deliver 15 percent of their power from renewables or by ramping up energy efficiency by 2021.
However, the September measure didn't gain traction and agenda-setter and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided the bill didn't have enough votes to pass.
Fast-forward to Monday, Jan. 31, when Bingaman appeared at the National Press Club at the invitation of the New Democratic Network, a center-left think tank and advocacy organization.