RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Lawmakers see RES bill as Christmas tree for pet projects

With a renewable energy bill gaining legs in the Senate, lawmakers are increasingly eyeing the measure for their own pet projects.

Because the bill to implement a renewable electricity standard is probably the Senate's last chance at tackling energy issues this year, lawmakers also see it as a prime opportunity to advance other energy measures, including proposals to stall U.S. EPA climate regulations and advance nuclear energy and biofuel tax credits, among others.

A nationwide renewables mandate, or RES, is a longstanding pillar of Democratic energy plans that requires utilities to source certain amounts of their electricity from renewable sources. The bill currently under consideration in the Senate would require utilities to derive 15 percent of their electricity from sources like wind, solar and geothermal by 2021.

The bill's primary sponsors -- Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), said yesterday that the measure should be brought to the floor this session as stand-alone legislation -- or not at all (Greenwire, Sept. 23). But their colleagues are still looking to attach other measures.

"Well, it's like everything else that comes up for a vote on the Senate floor. Virtually everybody voting would like to have some variation on it," Bingaman said yesterday. "But I think at the end of the day you have to decide whether this, as it stands, is worth supporting. And I think it is."

Some lawmakers are already eyeing the bill as a possible vehicle for blocking EPA climate rules (E&ENews PM, Sept. 23).

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said it is a "real possibility" that he would support an effort to block climate regulations using the RES. "Whatever works," Bond said yesterday. "No specifics yet because we don't know what they're doing."

And Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the author of a bill to delay climate rules, said he was not planning to offer his measure as an amendment, but he did not rule it out. "I'm not saying no," Rockefeller said yesterday. "I'm just thinking about it."

Even if a measure to block EPA climate rules could get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, it would face an uphill battle clearing the Democratic-controlled House and would likely face a White House veto.

Climate in conference?

The RES may also present an opportunity to address climate measures in a conference committee during a lame-duck session, although lawmakers see the prospect as unlikely.

If the Senate approves an RES bill this year, the measure could be conferenced with RES language included in the broad climate and energy bill that passed the House in 2009, opening the door for climate measures to get tacked on. But a final package would be unlikely to get the needed 60 Senate votes if it included a price on carbon.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the lead architect of Senate climate legislation, conceded that it would be "very difficult" to add climate provisions during a House-Senate conference, in part due to time constraints. But he signaled that it may be possible.

"I think personally it would be difficult, but I can't say to you absolutely that it can't be done," Kerry said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a co-author of the House-passed bill, also said he was not sure whether it would be possible to advance climate provisions during a lame-duck RES conference. "I just don't know," he said. "We don't know if they've got a bill yet [in the Senate], we just don't know where we're gonna be."

Waxman declined to say whether he would be interested in pursuing a climate bill through that route.

Adding climate provisions would be a deal-breaker for some GOP senators who support the RES.

Brownback, the lead Republican supporter of the legislation, has cautioned Democrats against attempting to add climate measures at any point. "If it starts to look like antics are going to be played with it ... you may not have any Republican votes," he said. That includes "using it as a cap-and-trade vehicle," he said.

Other potential add-ons

Republican and Democratic senators alike are clamoring to see their favorite energy measures tacked on to RES language.

Brownback himself originally tried to flesh out the stand-alone RES legislation by adding an ethanol tax credit extension to draw in GOP votes. But Bingaman convinced him otherwise.

"I tried to get an ethanol piece on it I thought would be helpful, and Jeff said, 'No, let's try to go with a clean RES because we think that's the best opportunity to get there,'" Brownback said. "We've gotten a fair number of Republican co-sponsors on just a straight RES, so our prospects, I think, are looking better."

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he would be interested in attaching the oil spill liability compromise language he is working on with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to the RES.

But some Republican RES supporters, like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have indicated they would withdraw their support if Democratic leaders allow extraneous measures to be included.

"Is [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] going to have an open debate on it? If he's going to fill the tree, then I'm not going to vote for cloture," Grassley told reporters this week. "So that means it would come up even though I support the principle."

Brownback said amendments to the bill would not be a deal-breaker for him, although he ultimately stood by Bingaman in calling for a stand-alone measure.

"If our best shot is going stand-alone, I think we ought to do it that way," he said.

Some moderate Democrats, on the other hand, are saying they won't support the measure at all unless it includes specific additions.

Landrieu earlier this week said she would not support RES language unless it was part of an energy package that included spill-response measures, like a lifting of the Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling (Greenwire, Sept. 21).

And Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) yesterday said her support of RES language would hinge on the legislation including and defining biomass and hydroelectric energy.

"It depends on what you include, and that's very important," Lincoln said. "I mean biomass and the definition of it, and hydroelectric."

Lincoln has previously pushed for RES language that allows more forest materials to count toward meeting the standard.

Many Republicans and moderate Democrats say they want to see nuclear energy generation count toward the 15 percent mandate. But the bill's Democratic champions are not giving in.

"I'd love to have a much larger bill, but it seems to me it is preferable to do a renewable electricity standard than to end this session doing nothing," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. "I believe that we will have difficulty just getting the RES done by itself, but I think it's possible."

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said, "A renewable electricity standard should be about what are considered traditional renewable energy technologies."

Reporter Katherine Ling contributed.