ENERGY POLICY:

Outlook bleak for passing CES, repealing oil subsidies -- Bingaman

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is casting doubt on prospects for President Obama's proposed "clean energy" standard that would require utilities to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources by 2035.

New Mexico Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman also said a bill headed to the Senate floor this week that would ax tax breaks for the largest oil companies is certain to fail.

"The environment is a difficult one to get anything passed in," Bingaman said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that aired yesterday.

Bingaman said he and the panel's ranking member, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), are still sifting through some 300 responses they received last month in response to a "white paper" they released probing the issue of a clean energy standard (CES).

"We're now trying to figure out if we can put together a draft piece of legislation that could get enough votes to be seriously considered in our committee," Bingaman said. "We don't have the answer to that yet, but we're trying in a conscientious way to get to something that would achieve the kind of objective the president laid out."

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama called for an 80 percent clean energy standard by 2035. In a shift from previous Democratic calls for a renewable-only energy standard, the president said his standard could include nuclear energy, natural gas and coal with carbon capture and sequestration.

But despite the gesture, no Republican has endorsed the proposal. Murkowski is working with Bingaman on the white paper, but she has not agreed to sign onto a bill if one is introduced. And the measure faces tougher battles beyond the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Even noncontroversial Senate bills have been shelved for lack of bipartisan cooperation. And the Republican-controlled House is certain to reject a proposed CES.

"Everything's tough in this Congress," Bingaman said. "Trying to get agreement from the House of Representatives to do anything along the lines that the president laid out is going to be a difficult proposition."

Still, Bingaman -- who himself was a one-time CES naysayer in favor of a narrower renewable electricity standard -- still has some optimism on the topic.

"I think we're all moving in that direction, trying to see if it can be done," he said.

Bid to slash subsidies

He has little enthusiasm, though, for a proposal headed to the Senate floor this week that would slash a number of tax breaks for the oil industry's largest companies.

"I don't believe it does" have enough votes, Bingaman said. "And I think the Republicans will come up with some alternative that doesn't have the votes either. I don't think there will be enough votes to proceed on either of these bills."

The issue of oil industry tax breaks has dominated congressional discussions in recent weeks as lawmakers have targeted the incentives as a potential source of revenue to draw down the deficit. But the oil industry, many Republicans and some Democrats are staunchly opposed to such proposals, saying cutting the tax breaks for the oil companies would lead to reduced investment in domestic energy production.

For his part, Bingaman said he has not decided how he will vote Wednesday. But he is in favor of cutting at least some of the incentives.

"Frankly, I haven't decided how to vote," he said. "I certainly support paring back some of these tax breaks, but whether or not all of them should be pared back, I'm not certain at this point."

The proposal to cut some of the oil industry's tax incentives is a perennial topic in Congress, especially when oil and gas prices creep to an uncomfortable threshold. Bingaman has both supported and voted against similar measures in the past.

"I've voted in some cases to remove and reduce tax breaks for the oil industry. In other cases, I voted not to because I felt the proposals covered too much," he said, adding that an argument made by the CEOs of the five largest oil companies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week deserves some more attention.

"There is an argument which was made very strongly by the CEOs: If you're going to change the tax structure, you shouldn't just do it for these five companies; you should do it more generally," Bingaman said. "So there's an argument there that deserves attention."

Despite his doubts on CES and the oil tax breaks, Bingaman said there is room for bipartisan cooperation on energy issues in the Senate this year on measures that could help keep the price of oil and gas regulated in future years.

Bingaman pointed to a bill introduced recently by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would promote the use of electric vehicles. The committee will hear testimony on that measure later this week.