SENATE:

Unelected Colo. Democrat a wild card on energy, climate issues

When it comes to legislation aimed at addressing climate change, there are senators whose votes are clear and those who are undecided. Then there is Sen. Michael Bennet, who might be described as a enigma.

Bennet, a Colorado Democrat appointed to his seat in January when Ken Salazar vacated it to become Interior secretary, has said he hopes to support a climate bill. He offers in an interview that some of his priorities include "a greater focus on renewables, like wind and sun," as well as incentives for natural gas.

Bennet does not list specifics, however, about what help he would want for those industries, whether legislation should include protections for coal, or how he would want to protect consumers from rising prices. His answers can be interpreted in any number of ways. And because he came to the Senate without serving in any legislative office, he lacks any voting record that could offer clues.

That makes him a key target of industry lobbyists, environmental groups and Democratic leaders who will need every vote to pass climate legislation.

"Climate change and environmental legislation have traditionally been the hardest to build coalitions around," said Julian Zelizer, Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. Democrats are split, he said, between wanting to protect the environment and seeking to protect manufacturing jobs.

"It doesn't seem like they're going to get much Republican support," Zelizer added. "The undecided senators are central."

Bennet, 44, the former superintendent of Denver's public schools, arrived in the Senate after an election that saw Colorado tilt even more heavily toward the Democratic column, following a shift that started in 2004 when Salazar won his seat. In November, Colorado voted for Obama, elected Democrat Mark Udall as senator, and picked Democrats for five of seven House seats. Gov. Bill Ritter, elected in 2004, is a Democrat.

It is not clear whether that is a temporary change, analysts say, as Republicans prior to 2004 held most of the statewide offices. And Bennet has to face the voters for the first time next year, giving Democratic leaders an added incentive to help him.

The Senate climate bill won't be unveiled until next month, which Bennet said is one of the reasons he is not ready to talk specifics. "On this side of the Capitol, it's too early to know remotely what the policy choices are going to be," Bennet said.

But ultimately it is likely to be a tough vote for Colorado's newest senator. Bennet represents a state where traditional energy and environmental interests collide. Over the August recess, the senator said he plans to talk to people in the coal, natural gas, oil and renewable energy industries as well as environmentalists and entrepreneurs.

"I'd like to hear what they have to say about it before I shoot my mouth off," he said.

Juggling demands

Seven of the country's 100 largest natural gas fields and two of its 100 largest oil fields are found in Colorado, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are significant coal deposits, and about 70 percent of the state's electricity generation comes from coal-fired power plants.

But there is a push to go green on energy. Environmental groups thrive in the state, and even among conservatives there is an interest in protecting Colorado's scenic backdrops and its tourism industry, which brought $10.9 billion into the state last year.

"Energy issue's gotten complicated out here," said John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University. When gas and oil prices climbed to historic highs, he said, it kicked off a flurry of drilling in the state. "On the one hand it meant money, money, money and that's jobs, jobs, jobs. On the other hand it has environmental impacts."

People who had bought custom-built dream retirement homes saw oil rigs destroying their views, Straayer said. A contingent of hunters and fishers and outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are conservatives, also opposed the rapid expansion.

In 2004, Colorado was the first state in the country to pass a ballot initiative mandating that utilities generate a portion of their power from renewable sources, a requirement that topped out at 10 percent by 2015. Gov. Ritter two years ago increased the requirement to 20 percent by 2020 for the investor-owned utilities. He also brought energy cooperatives into the program. They must meet a 10 percent level by 2020.

Investment flowed into renewables, particularly solar power. A June 2009 Pew Charitable Trust report cited Colorado, along with Tennessee and Oregon, as having one of the fastest-growing "clean energy" economies.

Bennet cited findings in that Pew report when he introduced Ritter last month at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Clean energy job growth in Colorado from 1998 through 2007 "is more than double, double the normal job growth [at] 18.2 percent as opposed to 8.2 percent," Bennet said. Venture capital investment in green technology in Colorado "topped $620 million over the past three years." That statistic also is from the Pew report, which lists Colorado as fifth for venture capitol investments in clean energy, behind California, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington.

Bennet's signed on as co-sponsor to a bill from Sen. Tom Udall, (D-N.M.) and Udall of Colorado that would enact a 25-percent-by-2025 renewable electricity standard. "It's been an enormous positive for Colorado," Bennet said. "The market adapted. Our evidence is that it works."

When it comes to Colorado's fossil fuels, Bennet for now is stepping behind natural gas, calling for it to have a bigger role in the Senate bill. "It was essentially absent from the House bill," Bennet said. "I'd like to know why that is."

Bennet said he also sees "opportunities to tie together natural gas with intermittent power sources like sun and wind."

"I don't have any specifics today," Bennet said about what he wants to see. "I'm talking with people in the environmental community and natural gas people and hearing what their ideas are."

Asked whether he felt a need to protect the coal interests in his state, Bennet said, "in the context of trying to get a bill that makes a meaningful difference in our emission of C02, yes." He added he has spent the last four months working on economic stimulus and health care issues and had yet to research all aspects of climate.

Some aspects of climate have drawn his attention, however. During a July hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Bennet cited a study from the University of Colorado, Boulder, indicating a one in two chance that water reservoirs in the Colorado River will dry up by 2050. He asked John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to explain more about climate change and its effect on water and agriculture. Holdren talked of increased likelihood of drought in the Southwest.

"In Colorado now we're confronting these issues because of the water shortages that we have," Bennet said. "If we are going to be able to assure that another generation of Coloradans are able to farm, or one after that, we need some answers to these questions how do we preserve our water resources."

At that same hearing, Bennet asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the potential for rural farmers to benefit from offsets, a provision in the House climate bill allowing companies to invest in programs that reduce carbon dioxide instead of buying allowances to cover greenhouse gases. Farmers could potentially qualify as an offset by switching crops or changing how they manage livestock.

"They all seem like potential economic benefits," Bennet said. "We haven't seen them yet, we're not sure, but could be hugely important to our rural communities."

All things to all people?

Bennet's lack of a voting history allows him to become all things to all people, said Zelizer with Princeton University. It probably "makes the party leaders a little bit nervous," he said.

Presidents have aides who search lawmakers' backgrounds, looking for what makes them tick politically and what might get their vote on legislation.

"Someone like him you don't really know much about him, and that makes him more difficult and harder to persuade," Zelizer said. "It's hard to read who he is."

But that also could offer an opening, Zelizer said. Bennet does not have to worry about taking a position that contradicts one he has taken in the past.

"He's more of a blank slate ... and he might be looking for an issue," Zelizer said. If Bennet joined a group of senators to pass a bill, "This can be kind of a defining moment. It could elevate him in the national spotlight, and the administration would be indebted to him."

One environmentalist said he wasn't too worried that Bennet would not in the end be an ally. "Obviously Senator Bennet doesn't have a track record, but he comes highly recommended from people in Colorado about his willingness to engage on these issues and support measures to obtain a clean energy economy," said Dave Hamilton, Sierra Club director of global warming and energy programs.

Environmentalists who have talked to Bennet, Hamilton said, report that "he's willing to listen."

"I'm not lying awake nights thinking that somehow Senator Bennet is going to become a wild-eyed conservative on environmental issues," Hamilton said. It's impossible to say whether Bennet can be counted as a yes vote, Hamilton said, because "it's unclear in the Senate what you're actually getting him on board for."

A lobbyist for coal interests, who asked not to be identified citing his company policy, said he did not know where Bennet was at on the provisions the industry is seeking. "He's smart enough to keep his head down," the lobbyist said.

Frank Maisano, senior principal at Bracewell & Giuliani, which lobbies for utility and coal interests, described Bennet as "a bit of a wild card," but noted how he had "connected the dots," on agriculture, water and offsets.

But while renewables have grown in Colorado, Maisano said, "coal is a significant contributor and they have a significant pull despite what the folks in Boulder think.

"Obviously it's going to be a tough vote for him," Maisano added.

The wisest course politically for Bennet is to not make a decision or say too much on a climate bill before he has to, said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

"He's going to feel party pressure in the Senate to support it," Loevy said. "The position he's in, he's going to have to go with his best judgment of where public opinion is. If he sees cap and trade as gaining popularity he'll vote for it. If he sees it as unpopular in Colorado, he'll vote against it."