Retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Abandon sweeping energy bills

Outgoing Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has some advice for the next Congress: The era of big energy bills is over.

The retiring five-term Democrat, in an MSNBC interview, said lawmakers should move beyond trying to pass sweeping, catch-all energy bills in favor of measures that separately address different sectors.

“I hope … that future Congresses will have the wisdom not to try and do comprehensive energy legislation,” Bingaman said in the wide-ranging interview. “I wouldn’t do it big.”

“Congress is in a mindset . . . where . . . if you say ‘energy,’ then we have got to have a 1,000-page bill and it has got to include everything but the kitchen sink. I think that has caused us more trouble than it has advantaged us in recent years,” he said.

Bingaman said Congress made good progress with wide-ranging bills that passed and were signed into law in 2005 and 2007.

But another comprehensive bill that the Senate energy panel approved on a bipartisan basis in 2009 sputtered after it left committee and didn’t reach the Senate floor.

Other wide-ranging bills have also failed to make it across the finish line.

The House narrowly passed a sweeping energy and cap-and-trade bill for greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, but it didn’t advance in the Senate, where climate legislation collapsed in 2010.

Going forward, Bingaman advises tackling electric power legislation and transportation fuels-related bills separately. He noted that policy debates sometimes blur an important distinction.

“The problem we have got around the Congress and Washington generally is, the price of gas goes up at the pump, and people start going to the Senate floor and saying ‘what we need is more nuclear power plants.’ Well, they are totally unrelated,” Bingaman said.

“We ought to deal with legislation that helps us to produce electricity in an environmentally sensitive way, and then we ought to deal with legislation that helps us meet our transportation needs – separate. That would be the logical thing to do,” he said.

Bingaman, however, also speaks favorably about electric vehicles, which are currently a small share of the auto market.

“If we could actually get to a point where much of our transportation is with electric-powered vehicles, that would be a great step forward,” he said.

Sen.-elect Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) won the race to replace Bingaman in November, and will also be a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Bingaman gave his farewell speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

It included a call for tackling climate change, noting that the “bipartisan consensus” than enabled the major 2005 and 2007 energy bills “has, unfortunately, eluded us in the current Congress.”

“I hope that in future Congresses there will reemerge a recognition that climate change is a reality, that our policies to meet our energy needs must also deal responsibly with environmental issues, including the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Bingaman, in his farewell speech, looked back at the big 2005 and 2007 energy laws. From the speech:

Those bills promoted an adequate and more diverse supply of energy. They increased the efficiency and effectiveness of how we use energy in our economy. They promoted strong market reforms and consumer protections for electricity, and they struck a balance between meeting our energy goals and lessening environmental impacts of energy, including overall greenhouse gas emissions. As a result of that balanced approach, we have arrested what had been an increasing dependence on foreign oil, coupled with technological advances that have opened new sources of supply.  We're headed to greater levels of energy independence than we had thought possible, even as recently as seven years ago.

Click here to read Bingaman’s farewell speech (or watch it here), and his MSNBC interview is available here.

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