Bingaman: Unclear if ‘clean energy standard' can clear committee

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said it’s unclear whether a White House plan to mandate a doubling of electricity from low-carbon sources like renewables and nuclear power has enough votes to clear the panel.

Obama used his State of the Union speech to call for a “clean energy standard” under which utilities together would supply 80 percent of their power from low-emissions sources by 2035. Bingaman is working with the White House on a proposal.

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“We are trying to figure out if we can put together a draft piece of legislation that can get enough votes to be seriously considered in our committee,” Bingaman said in an interview with C-SPAN broadcast over the weekend.

“We don’t have the answer to that yet, but we are trying in a conscientious way to get to something that would achieve the kind of objective the president laid out,” he said.

Bingaman and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — the committee's top Republican — in March solicited comments on a “white paper” about how to structure a clean standard, although Murkowski cautioned that the effort did not constitute an endorsement of the proposal.

New mandates on power companies faces hurdles in the Senate and even bigger barriers in the GOP-controlled House.

But the White House is emphasizing that the standard would be a flexible program that allows utilities to make use of an array of technologies to meet the requirements.

In addition to counting renewables and nuclear power toward the standard, natural gas and electricity from coal plants that trap and store carbon emissions (a technology not yet commercialized) would receive partial credit, and the plan should leave the door open to credit energy sources that emerge in the future, according to the White House.

“By ensuring flexibility through a broad definition of clean energy and by allowing trading among utilities, the program is designed to meet the overall target cost-effectively. The administration’s proposal emphasizes the importance of protecting consumers and accounting for regional differences,” the White House argued in a report earlier this year.

Bingaman, in the C-SPAN interview, predicted that the White House is ready to put political muscle behind moving a “clean energy standard” if there is evidence of support across the aisle.

“They are working with us in trying to come up with a draft proposal. That is the stage we are at now, and if we can get a draft proposal that has bipartisan support, then I assume [the White House] would use all of their abilities,” Bingaman said.

Bingaman, in the same interview, said a Democratic bill to repeal tax breaks for the largest oil companies would fail on the Senate floor this week.

Bingaman is seeking to move legislation through the committee on offshore oil drilling safety reform, creating a new federal agency to expand financing options — such as loan guarantees — for green energy projects, spurring development of small modular nuclear reactors, and other issues.

In the C-SPAN interview, he praised a bipartisan plan sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that’s aimed at accelerating market penetration of electric vehicles.

“Hopefully we will be able to move ahead with that. It’s useful legislation,” Bingaman said.