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SENATE: Energy panel's Democratic staff chief highlights bipartisan opportunities

03/01/11
Energy & Environment Daily PM
Katie Howell, E&E reporter

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Democratic staff director predicted today that the panel would find opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on several fronts -- including boosting energy efficiency and creating a financing program for deploying clean energy technologies.

"This is going to be a challenging Congress to operate in because there are going to be lots of other crosswinds of other policy areas that threaten to knock us off course," Democratic staff director Bob Simon said at a Washington energy event hosted by Bloomberg Government and the Abraham Group. But he added, "I think there are a number of these topics that don't necessarily break down on party lines."

Many of the areas that Simon predicts may see action this year are issues that have already seen bipartisan support on the committee in previous sessions of Congress. Issues like improving energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment and creating a financing program to spur technology deployment are likely to earn bipartisan support on the committee this year. A newcomer issue with bipartisan promise, Simon predicts, is rare-earth mineral availability.

Noticeably absent from Simon's list is a "clean energy standard" like the one championed by President Obama in his State of the Union address. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has previously pushed to pass a renewable energy standard that would require utilities to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, but previous efforts bogged down in regional disputes and larger climate discussions.

Earlier this year, a broader clean energy standard (CES) that included more energy sources like nuclear energy and natural gas was seen as a potential area for bipartisan consensus, but talks on such a mandate have been slow to materialize in the closely divided Senate, and both Bingaman and Simon have raised concerns with how such a policy would be implemented.

And the committee may instead focus early efforts on measures that are likely to gain traction among both Democrats and Republicans.

"The reality about energy policy," Simon said, "is that it is very difficult to promote energy policy on a purely partisan basis. ... Once you get past the slogans phase of energy policy, where you say, 'We all need to be energy independent' or other similar broad goals, and you get down to the details, it gets regional very quickly."

Bingaman and previous Energy and Natural Resources chairmen "all discovered that if you were going to be successful in formulating energy policy, you had to be broad-based enough that you could engage regional coalitions and bipartisan coalitions in order to get something done, so that's sort of been the way to success on our committee, and I think it's fated to continue if we're going to be able to pass any future energy bills out of this committee," Simon added.

Indeed, Bingaman and the committee's ranking member, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), have already introduced a bipartisan energy efficiency measure that is similar to language that nearly passed the Senate at the end of last year.

Simon also has high hopes for bipartisan support of a measure that would create a "Clean Energy Deployment Administration," a longtime Bingaman priority and an idea first proposed by Republican Energy Chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Language to create such a program to finance the early-stage development and deployment of emerging clean energy technologies was included in the broad energy bill the committee cleared on a bipartisan vote last Congress.

"I'm hopeful in this Congress that we are able to get our arms around these topics that we have traditionally considered and have worked over the past," Simon said.

Simon said he is also optimistic that Democrats and Republicans on the committee can work together on new topics like rare-earth element availability. Rare earths are a group of minerals that are critical to defense, new energy technologies and consumer electronics, and they are currently primarily sourced from China despite vast domestic deposits.

Simon said the committee could work together on legislation that would address rare-earth supply, use and recycling. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the committee, has introduced a rare-earth bill this Congress. Murkowski last Congress introduced a measure that addresses rare-earth issues.