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A Peek At The Senate's Energy Priorities

Next year, new Congress: Who will be the major players crafting energy policy? Well, there's Barack Obama—him you know. There's Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works committee and will likely get first crack at any climate bill. (There's been periodic grumbling in the Senate that the finance committee should play a much bigger role on cap-and-trade legislation, especially if it raises new revenue, though Finance already has its arms full with tax reform and health care.) Then there's whoever wins the jousting match between John Dingell and Henry Waxman for the House energy chair.

Oh, yes, and then there's Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. It's still unclear what precise role Bingaman's committee will have in formulating a national policy on carbon-dioxide emissions, but there's no doubt he'll have a hand in virtually everything else, from revamping the national electric grid to overseeing oil markets. So, not surprisingly, when he spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) early this morning, laying out the Senate's energy agenda for the upcoming term, he had no trouble drawing a large crowd room full of journalists, lobbyists, and even a few foreign diplomats who wanted to hear his thoughts. And Bingaman had plenty—here were his six top priorities:

1. Deploying clean energy. Bingaman called, yet again, for a national renewable portfolio standard—whereby electric utilities would be required to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources by, say, 2025 (something nearly 30 states already do). Republicans barely managed to scuttle this last year, and it'll likely be one of the measures the new Congress takes up. Bingaman argued that existing production tax credits for solar and wind, which were only renewed at the 11th hour this year, don't do enough to bolster clean energy—they're too uncertain, and, in the current economic climate, few companies are reaping enough of a profit to even benefit from the credits. He also supported a bill to promote carbon sequestration for coal-fired plants, though he sounded dubious about Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher's proposal to tax electricity customers and basically fork the money over to the coal industry.

2. Improving energy efficiency. Bingaman didn't take a stance on the GM bailout proposal now under discussion, but he did mention that we needed new ways to boost the efficiency of vehicles—and while he was happy using tax incentives to so, he wanted to get away from the "technology-specific" breaks currently in vogue. Then he rattled off a whole list of other measures he wanted to see, from tightening building codes to reducing the energy intensity of the industrial sector. Intriguingly, he suggested that Congress might take a closer look at Japan's "top-runner" program to boost the efficiency of household appliances. (In Japan, the government doesn't set minimum standards as happens here—instead, every year the most efficient model of each appliance on the market essentially sets the standard that other companies must then meet in ensuing years.)

3. Securing the supply of conventional fuels. Throughout his speech, Bingaman stressed that he considered global warming a critical issue and that curbing greenhouse gases was a top priority that couldn't wait. But, even as the United States starts slashing its CO2 emissions, Bingaman said, we need to make sure that existing oil and gas supplies weren't disrupted in the interim, so that the transition would go smoothly. That meant taking a gander at offshore drilling, though he was mostly interested in trying to map out the outer continental shelf first—a provision to do so had passed Congress in 2005, but never got funded.

4. Bolstering innovation. Like any good apple-pie-loving politician, Bingaman made all the right noises about increasing federal funding for science and engineering, so that we can develop the next generation of breakthrough energy technologies. Sure, everyone loves this stuff. But he also moved beyond platitudes and argued that Congress should move to fund the ARPA-E agency, which passed in 2007, modeled after the Pentagon's DARPA, which has been relatively successful at helping give birth to new technologies (like, uh, the Internet).

5. Transparency of energy markets. Bingaman was relatively vague on this point, simply observing that energy markets need stricter oversight, though he conceded that "there's no getting away from supply and demand," which was an integral part in the run-up of oil prices this summer—and, for that matter, their subsequent fall.

6. Environment. The big one. Bingaman is serious about capping greenhouse-gas emissions, and, while the bill he put out with Arlen Specter in 2005 was criticized by enviros for having flabby targets and too many "safety valves" for polluters, my sense is that he'd be open to stronger legislation. He emphasized that he'd like to be "in synch" with the Obama administration, which favors deep reductions in CO2 by 2050. But Bingaman argued that previous cap-and-trade bills had faltered in Congress because they tried to do too much—they tried to set up a complicated new regulatory structure and establish new efficiency programs and provide new funding streams for solar and wind and carbon sequestration and regulate transportation and agriculture.... By contrast, Bingaman just wants to get the carbon-trading market established first, in a "streamlined" bill, and worry about all the other stuff separately. That, he argued, would make it easier to garner votes. (Of course, you can see why he'd prefer this approach—his committee won't have as central a role in the cap-and-trade bill as it would in separate energy bills.) And, he said, we need to start funding clean energy and efficiency right now, rather than waiting around for funds to slowly trickle in from permit auctions under a cap-and-trade regime.

A few other noteworthy points: Bingaman said flat-out, in response to a questioner, that a gas tax or "floor" on oil prices was never going to happen, because "the politics are problematic." He also insisted that we can't wait for carbon-capture technology for coal to become viable before capping carbon. Someone in the audience then asked him about Obama adviser Jason Grumet's statement that the new administration may use the Clean Air Act as a spur if Congress refuses to act on cap-and-trade. Bingaman rejected Grumet's premise, saying that the Senate definitely wanted to move forward on a climate bill soon (even if it may not get done by the end of 2009), though the fact that the Supreme Court was basically ordering the EPA to regulate carbon-dioxide certainly stepped up the pressure on Congress to act quickly.

--Bradford Plumer