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Signs of Life in Senate for Obama's 'Clean Energy Standard'

Senators go back to square one with a new white paper on how to design a federal clean energy standard that includes nuclear and coal

By Elizabeth McGowan

Mar 25, 2011
Sen. Jeff Bingaman

WASHINGTON—With love, luck and lollipops being in short supply on Capitol Hill these days, it's highly unlikely Congress will present Sen. Jeff Bingaman with the legacy of a parting gift of even a watered-down clean energy standard.

Realizing that, the outgoing New Mexico Democrat — who has announced he won't seek a sixth term in 2012 — seems determined not to exit Washington empty-handed.

In his usual diplomatic and straightforward fashion, the chairman of the joined with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the panel, this week to solicit ideas from one and all about how to fashion a clean energy standard.

"The purpose of is to lay out some of the key questions and potential design elements of a CES," Bingaman and Murkowski wrote, "and to ascertain whether or not consensus can be achieved."

Contributors have until April 11 to available on the committee's website.

While purists who don't want Bingaman to stray from his roots of supporting solely a renewable energy standard (RES) are perhaps disappointed, centrists are elated at the opportunity for forward movement this year before the next election season paralyzes policymaking in both the House and the Senate.

And even though energy continues to rate as one issue that registers bipartisan support in both chambers and among the public, speculation on how far this Bingaman-Murkowski approach will advance is just that — a guessing game.

"We're actually encouraged that there are signs of life," Tim Greeff, policy director of the nonprofit , told SolveClimate News in an interview. "In today's political climate, if you're not transparent, nothing is going to move. This is the first step in that transparency.

"The Senate is a body that respects process," he continued. "[Bingaman and Murkowski] have worked together before on some fairly comprehensive energy policy. The only way to do this is to do what they’re doing, be truly bipartisan and build it from the center out."

Bingaman Has Practical Change of Heart

When Obama met with Bingaman in the Oval Office back on Feb. 2, it was clear the president was counting on the senator’s savvy to advance bipartisan energy policy during this legislative session.

Though Bingaman has always been partial to an RES that encourages growth in wind, solar and other more traditional renewables, he has realized over the last six months or so that Congress will continue to reject such a narrow measure.

Several times this year — including during a Jan. 31 appearance at the National Press Club before the , a center-left think tank and advocacy organization — Bingaman has stated his willingness to back a standard that includes nuclear power and other clean energy technologies.

It's uncertain what kind of debate would emerge around a bill that could include power plants that generate electricity fueled by nuclear, natural gas or coal accompanied by as-yet-to-be-developed carbon capture and storage capabilities.   

What the Two Senators Are Seeking

In the joint that emerged barely seven weeks after Bingaman's White House meeting, he and Murkowski remind readers that although Congress has debated low-carbon concepts for the last decade, no legislation has advanced beyond the committee stage.

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