The idea of passing an energy bill without cap and trade is gaining currency on Capitol Hill as Democratic leaders look at scaling back their agenda. But it may run into trouble from liberal and coastal lawmakers who oppose more offshore drilling.
"Energy only" backers have portrayed such legislation as a path to a bipartisan achievement, particularly in the wake of the Massachusetts Senate election widely seen as a repudiation of the Democrats' ambitious agenda.
But while liberal and coastal lawmakers might have been willing to allow more offshore drilling in exchange for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, they are less likely to give up that leverage if a cap-and-trade plan is jettisoned.
"There are provisions that are more difficult for us to accept if they're not part of a comprehensive bill," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "In a broader package I am more understanding of some of the other regional concerns."
Conversely, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is trying to put together a joint climate and energy bill has been telling Republicans that they cannot get the offshore drilling, nuclear and other pro-production measures they want without a cap.
"I can get every Republican for an energy independence bill, OK? But there are not 60 votes," Graham said. "You're not going to get the nuclear power provisions you want unless you do something on emission controls."
The energy bill (S. 1462) passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June included a provision by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to open areas as close as 45 miles from Florida's gulf coast to drilling.
The measure also includes a renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021. Environmentalists have called for a 25 percent standard by 2025.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) still wants his committee's bill to be paired with a cap-and-trade system. But Dorgan has pushed for that legislation to be passed on its own, without the cap-and-trade plans being written in other committees.
"It will move us in the direction of a lower-carbon future," Dorgan said. He added that most areas of the outer continental shelf were opened to drilling a year ago. His bill would open one of the last places that is still off limits.
"Offshore drilling is a carrot," Dorgan said. "It's a carrot that's already been consumed."
But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is likely to filibuster any effort to expand drilling off the shores of his home state. Without an emissions cap, liberal Democrats are even less likely to try to help override his objections.
"Enviros would revolt and could easily peel off enough liberal senators to keep them from getting 60 votes," said a House Democratic leadership aide, "at least in the short term."
Another House Democratic aide who described the energy-only bill as a likely compromise said it would still need the Florida senator's support to pass. The aide said Dorgan and Nelson would have to work out some sort of compromise about how far off the coast the drilling would be.
And prospects would not be much better in the House. The House cap-and-trade bill did not include any offshore drilling. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a longtime foe of offshore drilling and once derided the idea that it might lower gas prices as a "hoax."
Pelosi relented in the face of Republican pressure and high gas prices in 2008 and allowed a longstanding moratorium on coastal drilling to expire, although the GOP and oil industry have criticized the Obama administration's progress on approving leases.
Though it is being shepherded by Dorgan, supporters see offshore drilling as a way to bring Republicans on board to an energy bill. Energy companies say drilling is popular not only with the GOP but the general public as well.
"The American people overwhelmingly support these common-sense efforts, and leaders in Washington should too," said Bruce Vincent, president of Swift Energy and chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Supporters also note that liberals and environmentalists would still be getting a renewable energy standard that would cut greenhouse emissions by power plants. But that won't satisfy most climate activists. Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said the RES in the Senate energy bill has too many loopholes.
Weiss looks at drilling as the political equivalent of dessert. Measures to reduce greenhouse gases amount to eating your vegetables, he said -- not as pleasant, but better in the long run. He worries that any such bill will have too much sugar and not enough broccoli.
"We need a balanced energy menu with vegetables and protein, not just a pile of Cool Whip," Weiss said.
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.