Signs of Life in Senate for Obama's 'Clean Energy Standard'

Senators go back to square one with a new white paper on how to design a federal clean energy standard that includes nuclear and coal

Mar 25, 2011

Sen. Jeff Bingaman. Credit: Cheryl Biren

WASHINGTON—With love, luck and lollipops being in short supply on Capitol Hill these days, it's highly unlikely Congress will present Sen. Jeff Bingaman with the legacy of a parting gift of even a watered-down clean energy standard.

Realizing that, the outgoing New Mexico Democrat — who has announced he won't seek a sixth term in 2012 — seems determined not to exit Washington empty-handed.

In his usual diplomatic and straightforward fashion, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee joined with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the panel, this week to solicit ideas from one and all about how to fashion a clean energy standard.

"The purpose of this document is to lay out some of the key questions and potential design elements of a CES," Bingaman and Murkowski wrote, "and to ascertain whether or not consensus can be achieved."

Contributors have until April 11 to submit proposals via forms available on the committee's website.

While purists who don't want Bingaman to stray from his roots of supporting solely a renewable energy standard (RES) are perhaps disappointed, centrists are elated at the opportunity for forward movement this year before the next election season paralyzes policymaking in both the House and the Senate.

And even though energy continues to rate as one issue that registers bipartisan support in both chambers and among the public, speculation on how far this Bingaman-Murkowski approach will advance is just that — a guessing game.

"We're actually encouraged that there are signs of life," Tim Greeff, policy director of the nonprofit Clean Economy Network, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "In today's political climate, if you're not transparent, nothing is going to move. This is the first step in that transparency.

"The Senate is a body that respects process," he continued. "[Bingaman and Murkowski] have worked together before on some fairly comprehensive energy policy. The only way to do this is to do what they're doing, be truly bipartisan and build it from the center out."

Bingaman Has Practical Change of Heart

When Obama met with Bingaman in the Oval Office back on Feb. 2, it was clear the president was counting on the senator's savvy to advance bipartisan energy policy during this legislative session.

Though Bingaman has always been partial to an RES that encourages growth in wind, solar and other more traditional renewables, he has realized over the last six months or so that Congress will continue to reject such a narrow measure.

Several times this year — including during a Jan. 31 appearance at the National Press Club before the New Democratic Network, a center-left think tank and advocacy organization — Bingaman has stated his willingness to back a standard that includes nuclear power and other clean energy technologies.

It's uncertain what kind of debate would emerge around a bill that could include power plants that generate electricity fueled by nuclear, natural gas or coal accompanied by as-yet-to-be-developed carbon capture and storage capabilities.   

What the Two Senators Are Seeking

In the joint six-page white paper that emerged barely seven weeks after Bingaman's White House meeting, he and Murkowski remind readers that although Congress has debated low-carbon concepts for the last decade, no legislation has advanced beyond the committee stage.

They also point out that advocates of a federal electricity mandate claim that key benefits include reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases and allowing domestic manufacture of wind, solar, geothermal and associated technologies to grow. Opponents, on the other hand, claim that such a mandate will pick winners and losers among competing technologies and financially penalize regions of the country.

Their paper drills down on six main questions that need to be answered to figure out what type of CES might fit with goals President Obama is calling for and if that target from the White House is reasonable.

Topics revolve around what size power plants should be included, what qualifies as clean energy, what timeframe is workable, how specific technologies will be affected, how to address regional costs and consumer protections, and whether technology-specific supporting policies might be necessary.

"I'm encouraged to see that they are asking the right questions," Greeff said. "For instance, asking how energy efficiency should be treated in the mix is a legitimate question. They really hit the nail on the head with the main issues because they hit on the high points."

In this year's State of the Union address, Obama proposed that 80 percent of the nation's electricity come from clean energy technologies by 2035.

Currently, this nation's electricity generation breaks down to 10 percent from renewables (hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass); 20 percent from nuclear; 25 percent from natural gas; and 45 percent from coal, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Defining "clean energy" as that derived from renewables and nuclear would mean the country is obtaining 30 percent of its energy from clean sources. Adding "efficient" natural gas (combined cycle, for instance) to the mix would boost that total to 40 percent.

Treading Thoughtfully

A spokeswoman for Bingaman told SolveClimate News that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has a solid record of gathering input from the public via white papers before successful legislation crafted.

"We'd like some substance," Rosemarie Calabro said, adding that the panel is seeking ideas that can be backed up with data, modeling or analysis. "This isn't a popularity contest."

Though Calabro couldn't predict when a specific CES bill might emerge, she emphasized that the 22 panel members come from varied backgrounds and need to know they will be hearing ideas from a broad range of contributors.

"We have more than Jeff Bingaman and Lisa Murkowski on this committee," she said, adding that it includes eight new members. "We have no history with them and don't know how they're going to vote.

"The process is fair this way," she continued. "Everyone is welcome, so there can't be complaints that we only listen to certain experts."

With 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans serving on Bingaman's rearranged committee during this 112th Congress, the New Mexican knows it will be trickier to win a majority there before advancing any measure to the full Senate where the Democratic caucus has just a 53 to 47 edge.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon told SolveClimate News that the Alaska senator is indeed interested in hearing from stakeholders. But that doesn't mean she is enchanted with CES legislation.

He emphasized that the two senators have consistently differed philosophically on this front.

"The real question is if Bingaman is going to get behind something like this," Dillon said. "He's the chairman and he's the one talking to the White House."

"We aren't prejudging anything that hasn't happened yet," he concluded.

Greeff and members of the nationwide Clean Economy Network are encouraged by the early signs of collaboration — and keeping their fingers crossed. The educational and advocacy organization formed two years ago to advance clean technology and innovation.

"I'm as frustrated with Washington, D.C. as anyone," said Greeff, whose office is in the nation's capital. "But at least they're having an adult conversation about this from the get-go.

"Whether they have time to do this before the election season, that's a whole other question."

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