Schumer eyes energy bill as Democrats warm to more bipartisan ‘clean’ standard

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a top strategist for Senate Democrats, said Tuesday that energy legislation may come up quickly in the chamber -- comments that follow President Obama’s call for bipartisan action to greatly expand low-carbon power generation.

Obama’s State of the Union speech called for generating 80 percent of the nation’s power by 2035 from “clean” sources, including renewables, nuclear power, “clean coal” and natural gas.

Schumer, the vice-chairman of the Senate Democratic conference, called the proposal “great” and said energy legislation is on the agenda.

“I think that is a very likely thing that will come up rather soon,” he told reporters in the Capitol after Obama’s speech. “There is good grounds for an energy bill and there is good hope for some bipartisan cooperation on it.”

Obama’s proposal – which was broadly worded and steered clear of specifics – won cheers from several other Democrats. But there were early indications of skepticism from senior Republicans Tuesday night.

The Democratic applause shows that liberals are willing to embrace a standard that credits sources like nuclear power and natural gas, even though a more narrowly tailored renewable electricity standard has long been a pillar of Democratic and green group energy plans.

“I think what’s good is, because he went to a clean energy standard rather than a renewable energy standard, it brings in many more people. I think that’s going to generate a lot of support,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the liberal chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said a “clean” standard would be part of energy bills that emerge in the Senate this year. Kerry – along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) – tried to win traction last year for a more sweeping climate change and energy bill but it did not come up for a Senate vote.

Obama’s speech omitted any specific mention of greenhouse gases or climate change, and emissions-capping proposals are dead for now on Capitol Hill. Kerry told reporters that a climate bill isn’t in the cards in this Congress but said he sees backing for energy legislation.

“This is not going to be done in the context of climate and it is not going to be done in a broad comprehensive climate bill. It is going to be an energy bill, which deals with a lot of issues that are riper for this particular Congress to be able to embrace. I think we have to be realistic,” Kerry told reporters after Obama’s speech.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also praised the idea, and said she hoped lawmakers could form another bipartisan group akin to the “gang” that Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) formed in 2008 to craft a broad energy package. The effort ultimately fell apart, however.

“I hope we go back to something like that using this clean energy standard as an idea for a foundation for our work,” she said after the speech. Klobuchar noted that while the “clean” plan is broader than a renewables requirement, it also sets a higher target.

Most Capitol Hill proposals for a renewable electricity standard have called for utilities to supply roughly 15-20 percent of their power from renewable sources by around 2020. Allowing a wider range of sources allows the target to be set higher, she noted.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a centrist and advocate for his home state’s oil-and-gas industry, also spoke favorably about the idea after the speech.

“He [Obama] mentions gas, which for Alaska is significant,” Begich told reporters. “We see some nice openings there and opportunity.” Begich said he hopes to speak over the next week with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has talked up the idea of a “clean” standard. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has also signaled interest in the idea.

But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), asked about Obama’s plan, cautioned that Obama’s speech lacked details. “These speeches are really not designed to be particularly specific and . . . we will certainly know far more what the intentions are in February when we get the budget and things like this are laid out more clearly,” he said.

Indeed while Obama’s speech was broadly worded, any specific proposals that placed new requirements on electric utilities would likely face big political hurdles among the GOP.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) issued a statement after the speech that criticized the idea of an expanded federal role, noting, “Innovation is not measured in federal dollars spent or government mandates imposed.”

“Congress spent tens of billions of dollars on the federal government’s favored energy sources in the stimulus, yet America remains dependent on hostile foreign nations to power our lives,” Upton said. “We know the answer is not to hyper-subsidize preferred industries or force consumers and job creators to purchase energy they cannot afford.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) raised concerns that the clean energy standard may preference renewable energy.

"Thus far unfortunately, the signals that have come from this administration is they are trying to pick winners and losers, primarily in renewable energy," he said. "I’m not opposed to renewables, but I think it’s foolhardy for us to ignore all of the resources that we have."

A White House “fact sheet” about Obama’s call filled in few details. “By proposing to make sure that 80 percent of electricity comes from clean energy sources, the President is proposing new standards that will help create a market to unleash innovation across a range of energy sources, from renewable sources to nuclear power, clean coal, and natural gas,” the White House said.

The White House coupled Obama’s call for the 80 percent target by announcing that he’ll ask Congress to increase clean energy technology funding by a third compared to 2010, and other increased investments in energy efficiency and renewables, funded by repealing billions of dollars in oil industry tax breaks.

Repealing oil industry tax breaks faces resistance among Republicans and oil-patch Democrats.