Senate backers of a renewable electricity standard are closer than ever to the 60 votes needed to pass the long-stymied plan, but reaching the magic filibuster-proof number is proving to be no easy task.
A nationwide renewables standard, or RES, is a longstanding pillar of Democratic energy plans that requires utilities to supply escalating amounts of power from sources such as wind and solar.
With President Obama in the White House and stronger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, enactment of a standard has become more likely but remains far from certain. The Senate magic number of 60 votes, enough to get cloture and bypass a potential filibuster, remain the key hurdle.
"The gain in seats by Democrats does not necessarily make it automatic they can get 60," said a former Senate aide.
The issue could face its first test of the 111th Congress soon as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) plans to steer a major energy bill through the committee in roughly the next month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has cited the renewables standard among his energy goals.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to move an RES together with a cap-and-trade bill for carbon dioxide emissions.
It remains unclear whether Bingaman -- who has long pushed for a renewables standard -- will try and steer the proposal through the committee or go around it by adding it later on the Senate floor. Either way, a handful of Democratic votes will be a critical factor.
The number of Democrats who ultimately back the standard would determine how many GOP votes are needed. Some Republican moderates, including Maine's two senators, back renewables mandates, while supporters are also eyeing members including Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and others as potential votes in their favor.
Democrats, following gains in last year's elections, control 58 seats and could see that grow to 59 if Al Franken prevails in the contested Minnesota race. But in recent interviews with E&E, several Democrats expressed misgivings about an RES.
If Bingaman goes through the committee -- where Democrats hold a 13-10 majority -- the Democratic swing votes are believed to be Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Bingaman would need to carry two of these three, or at least win over one if he also has backing from some GOP members.
Bayh has not committed his vote either way. "I am all for helping promote the use of renewable energy. Whether this is the appropriate mechanism or not remains to be seen," he said. Asked whether he would vote for Bingaman's proposal specifically, he replied: "I have not endorsed it yet. That is not a yes or a no. It remains to be seen."
Bingaman has floated a bill that requires power providers to obtain 16 percent of their supply from renewables by 2019, and 20 percent in 2021 and for almost two decades thereafter. The plan allows 25 percent of the target to be met with utility demand reduction programs.
What about the House? Nuclear?
Reluctance among some Senate Democrats could create pressure on Bingaman and other supporters to make changes to his proposal. At the same time, it could make it difficult for Congress to approve the even more aggressive plan in play across Capitol Hill.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation last month that sets a standard of 25 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2025, and it does not allow efficiency measures to count toward the standard. Obama's platform also includes a target of 25 percent by 2025.
An RES is a top priority for environmentalists while major utilities such as Southern Co. have lobbied against it. Southeastern lawmakers in particular have said their states lack the resources to meet the targets, thus requiring utilities to buy credits or make other payments, which they fear could add costs. Supporters say the mandate is indeed feasible in the region and call the cost fears overblown.
Bingaman has ruled out one major concession that some Southeastern Democrats are seeking: allowing nuclear energy to count toward the standard. His spokesman, Bill Wicker, said Bingaman is not mulling this change, or allowing coal with carbon capture and storage to qualify.
"Nuclear energy, though carbon-free, is not a renewable form of energy," Wicker said. "Consistent with its title, the renewable electricity standard will promote renewable forms of energy."
Landrieu -- along with Lincoln and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) -- want nuclear to count toward a standard. But Landrieu this week floated the notion that a pro-nuclear provision could be included elsewhere in an energy bill, as opposed to the renewables mandate.
"There has to be some commitment to expand nuclear energy," Landrieu said. Otherwise, "the votes are not there without some kind of modification."
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who also did not commit to supporting a standard, said "I think nuclear power has to be part of the mix."
Despite reluctance among some lawmakers, Bingaman, in an interview with E&ETV that aired Tuesday, said he was optimistic that the longstanding policy goal would finally make it to the president's desk.
Bingaman, like environmentalists, downplayed the idea that the Southeast would be at a disadvantage, citing its biomass resources. But he did show some leeway. "I do think we want to build some flexibility into whatever we try to enact and basically provide the incentive and the impetus we can for more use of renewable energy and more production of renewable energy from whatever source," he said.
Lincoln's office, in a statement to E&E, said the lack of adequate wind and solar resources mean Southern states will have to rely heavily on biomass. "Sen. Lincoln wants to make sure that any renewable electricity standard allows energy generation from biomass to be utilized as much as possible in meeting the standard," the statement said.
'All about the actual numbers'
The former Senate aide predicted that the debate will rest on the size of the standard, rather than calls for including nuclear power or other energy forms that do not count toward the standard under current proposals. "I think it is all about the actual numbers, not the inclusion of different sources at this point," the former aide said.
Justin Tatham, a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society, said he believed supporters could get to 60 votes in the Senate. "What's up for debate is the strength of the standard," he said. He said Audubon is working to get the strongest possible standard and noted that like Obama, they back a standard of 25 percent by 2025.
In 2007, the House passed a standard of 15 percent by 2020 that allowed about a fourth of the mandate to be met with efficiency measures. But the provision, included in a major energy bill, stalled in the Senate amid a GOP-led filibuster and a White House veto threat and was removed.
A version of the Senate energy bill that included the renewables mandate stalled on a 53-42 cloture vote, but the overall bill later passed easily after the renewables provision and, several days later, a controversial tax package was stripped. After both measures were removed, the overall bill -- which included major biofuels, auto mileage and appliance efficiency provisions -- passed overwhelmingly.
Since then, some opponents of a renewables standard have been replaced with supporters. For instance, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico a strong supporter, replaced Sen. Pete Domenici (R), a leading opponent, while Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, replaced Sen. John Sununu (R).
But the changing of the guard in last year's election did not mean an increase in pro-RES votes in all cases. In the 2007 energy debate, former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R) supported the version of the bill that included the renewables mandate, as did Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R).
A smaller renewables standard than current proposals most recently passed in the Senate in 2005 but without needing to reach the 60 vote threshold. The Senate in 2005 narrowly passed a renewables standard of 10 percent by 2020 as an amendment to the major energy bill that year, but the provision was jettisoned in conference, a result anticipated in advance (E&ENews PM, June 16, 2005).
Assessing future votes on a renewables standard is difficult since the size of the target has grown, and the 2007 vote was for a much larger package that included an RES, among other changed factors. But the past votes nonetheless provide at least a blurry roadmap to where some swing votes lie.
Bayh voted in favor of the RES amendment in 2005 but against the version of the 2007 energy bill that included a mandate. Lincoln voted for the renewables amendment in 2005 and in favor of the 2007 bill that includes the provision, while Nelson and Pryor were "yes" votes in both cases.
Grassley voted in favor of the 2005 standard but against the 2007 version of the energy bill that included it. Specter voted for the standard in 2005 but against the version of the 2007 bill that included it. He then cast another vote against the bill before the energy tax provision was removed and subsequently supported it.
One major wild card is GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, who has joined the energy committee this year. The Arizona senator voted against the 2005 amendment but skipped the 2007 vote on the version of the bill that included a renewables standard.