Rescuing Energy from Partisanship

October 30, 2008
01:19 PM

In this op-ed, Chairman Jeff Bingaman summarizes his legislative priorities in energy for the new Congress, while also making clear that he sees a bipartisan approach as essential to accomplishing these goals.

"America faces serious challenges to its future economic growth, and energy is central to many of them.  As we prepare to elect the new Congress that will convene in January, now is a good time to review our bipartisan accomplishments on energy policy in this Congress, and to discuss where we are headed.
"We began this Congress having passed, in mid-2005, the first comprehensive energy legislation in 13 years, the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  That bill was about five years in the making, and it only happened in the end because the Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee at that time, Sen. Pete Domenici, was able to work constructively with Democrats to put forward a bill that most Members on both sides could embrace.
"In this Congress, we followed up with a new comprehensive energy bill, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  This bill was also the result of a strong bipartisan effort.  President Bush helped by putting forth some important policy initiatives in his 2007 State of the Union address, calling for more production of alternative transportation fuels and for higher fuel economy standards for automobiles.  In the Senate Energy Committee, we developed a strong energy bill with a large bipartisan majority.  It passed the Senate and, after an intensive process of reconciling this bill with the House of Representatives, we were able to come to closure on a final piece of bipartisan legislation that the President signed in December 2007.
"The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a good bill, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was an even better bill.  One measure of its impact was that its final passage forced the government's official Energy Information Administration to substantially revise its forecasts of future energy use and greenhouse gas production, predicting for the first time a reduction in U.S. oil imports and lower greenhouse gas emissions as a result of a law that we passed.
"Sadly, we did not maintain this momentum into 2008.  Throughout much of the past year, energy issues fell victim to a highly partisan environment in Congress, as energy prices emerged as a key concern for voters and as an issue on the campaign trail.  That is an important reason why, despite so much floor discussion of energy this spring and summer, Congress didn't actually do anything on energy.  Any issue that becomes polarized along party lines is not going to get very far in the United States Senate.  As energy issues became polarized in that way, the Congress lost its ability to deal with them effectively.
"Fortunately, in the last few weeks before Congress recessed for the elections, we found a bipartisan way forward on energy again.  Ironically, we were aided by the fact that the global financial crisis overwhelmed energy issues as a political matter. Through bipartisan efforts on the Senate Finance Committee, led by Senators Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley, and with the help of some key individuals in Senate leadership like Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign, the Senate was able to assemble an energy tax incentive package that won broad support, eventually being attached to the financial bailout bill.  At about the same time, we made progress on two other energy issues on the Continuing Resolution.  With both Presidential campaigns signaling their support for more offshore oil production, the moratorium on oil and gas exploration was lifted for much of the Outer Continental Shelf.  Congress also fully funded the direct loan program for retooling the automobile industry that was established in the 2007 Energy Act, permitting up to $25 billion in loans to be made to help move our transportation sector into a cleaner and more energy-efficient future.
"These accomplishments help set the stage for what I hope will be a productive legislative environment in the next two years.
As Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, I plan to push early and hard in the next Congress to return us to an effective, bipartisan and comprehensive approach to energy policy.  Despite the successes that we have had in this Congress and the last, there is a lot of work that remains to be done to secure an American energy future that is adequate, affordable and clean.
"We must work harder on the deployment of new energy technologies of all kinds.  Particularly with the growing concern about global warming, we need to make sure that we develop and deploy a new generation of clean, low-carbon energy technologies.  Those technologies include renewable energy; carbon capture, transportation and storage; and other low-carbon technologies, like nuclear power.  There is a global clean-tech revolution that we can either lead, or completely miss out on.  I believe that we need to make the investments here in the United States to lead it.
"Along with new clean energy technologies, we will need a modernized energy infrastructure to make sure that clean energy can be transported or transmitted from wherever it is generated to where it is needed.  Without a major new focus on putting in place a 21st-century energy infrastructure, we will not be able to make progress on either our energy security goals or our climate security goals.
"Our push for new clean sources of energy does not mean that we can ignore our existing major bases of energy supply.  We need to make sure that we have adequate and affordable supplies of conventional fuels as we make the needed transition to an energy future where our reliance on fossil fuels will be lessened.
"Along with new sources of energy, we need to make much more progress on using energy wisely and efficiently.  A major focus of our continuing efforts needs to be made in the transportation sector.  Our concern for energy efficiency also needs to focus on what we can do to improve energy usage in manufacturing, buildings, commercial equipment and appliances.  There is a long-standing partnership between Congress, efficiency advocacy groups and industry in setting the bar increasingly higher in these areas, and I hope that we can push for still more improvements in the next Congress.
"Our ability to deliver new energy technologies and innovations will depend crucially on our ability to fund new energy science and engineering, and on training the next generation of energy researchers, engineers, and technicians.  Our investments in these areas have been totally inadequate over the past decade, and we need to boost these levels substantially.  That is a cause that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the Senate, as evidenced by the passage of the America COMPETES Act boosting Federal science and technology programs, last year.
"Finally, we need to improve the functioning of Federal agencies and programs relating to energy across the board.  We need to develop real strength in the Federal government in terms of working with entrepreneurs, industry and markets in commercializing new energy technologies.  We need to ensure that a new generation of energy professionals can be brought into government to help us meet the challenges before us.  One of the most effective windows we have on energy markets, the Energy Information Administration, needs to be significantly expanded and strengthened, so that we can better understand the forces driving energy prices.
"This is a brief list of some of the key challenges that will face us in the next Congress.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive one.  I have publicly invited my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate to work with me on our energy challenges as we prepare for the next Congress.  When the next Congress convenes, I will be the longest-serving member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and I am proud of its long history of bipartisanship, stretching back to Senator "Scoop" Jackson in the 1970s.  Energy is not an inherently partisan issue.  If we care about our nation's future, we must return Washington to the bipartisan, substantive, and forward-looking approach to energy that has marked our successes in the past."
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