WASHINGTON – The national debate over clean energy, greenhouse gases and the economy flared at a Senate hearing Thursday as lawmakers considered Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s proposed clean energy standard for utilities.
Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has tried for years to persuade Congress to force utility companies to provide more power from clean, or renewable, sources. But Republican senators on the committee made it clear Thursday that the New Mexico lawmaker can’t count on passage of his bill in the narrowly divided Senate before he retires at the end of the year.
“Bringing energy prices down, I think, should be our objective, not bringing them up today or in the future as some studies have said this would do,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the committee.
Bingaman said his bill would help drive new technology to produce cleaner, more efficient energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, which many scientists contend are fueling climate change. A new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that Bingaman’s bill would have little effect on energy prices for the first five years, but that costs would begin to rise after 2020.
“The purpose of the clean energy standard is to establish a national standard for electricity to make sure that we leverage the clean resources we have today and provide a continuing incentive to develop the cheaper, cleaner energy technologies of the future,” Bingaman said at the hearing.
President Barack Obama has called for a clean energy standard in his past two State of the Union speeches, urging Congress to adopt rules that would push utilities to generate 80 percent of their power from clean sources by 2035. Bingaman’s bill aims to gradually accomplish that goal.
Beginning in 2015, the Bingaman proposal would require the nation’s largest utilities to ensure that a percentage of the electricity they sell comes from clean energy sources, and each year they would need to sell slightly more clean power.
A similar proposal cleared the energy committee in the last Congress but never got a floor vote. In 2005, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, signaled interest in pursuing what was then called a “renewable portfolio standard” for utilities.
“I think it’s time to explore an expanded portfolio standard that would mandate a broader array of clean fuels,” said the now-retired Domenici, who was chairman of the committee at the time.
Since then, Bingaman has expanded his plan to appease Republicans who wanted more energy sources – such as nuclear, natural gas and so-called “clean coal” – added to the list of clean energy sources, along with wind and solar. But even with the changes, it’s become clear that GOP support for any type of clean energy standard has dwindled as the U.S. economy has faltered.
On Thursday, Republicans repeatedly cited high energy prices and a shaky economy as reasons not to enact legislation that could drive utility costs even higher for Americans.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Bingaman’s bill doesn’t capitalize on America’s abundant coal and natural gas resources.
“We have tremendous strengths that allow us to be competitive over the long haul,” Corker said. “Are we deploying our strengths competitively?”
Bingaman said it has “become an article of faith” among Republicans in Congress that they won’t support legislation aimed at mitigating climate change or enhancing clean energy technologies. He also acknowledged Thursday that his bill has little chance of passing this year.
However, Bingaman said the hearing was a good way to take the Senate’s temperature on an important national energy issue.
“It’s very difficult to get the votes to move ahead with the bill,” Bingaman told the Journal after the hearing. “But there is a value to trying to design a workable clean energy standard that would accomplish the kinds of objectives the president outlined.”
David Sandalow, acting undersecretary for energy at the Department of Energy, said the Obama administration strongly supports Bingaman’s bill. He challenged Congress to be ambitious when it comes to supporting cutting-edge energy policy.
“These are the exact kinds of challenges we have met in the past,” Sandalow said. “We can do this.”