POLITICS:

'Energy only' bill would be tough sell

If Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) bolts the Senate climate coalition, it must be time to turn to the "energy only" bill that centrist Democrats have been promoting as a bipartisan alternative to a climate bill, right?

Not so fast.

The "Bingaman bill" that passed New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year does have bipartisan support. But it also has bipartisan opposition, and that opposition has only gotten stronger in the intervening months. It is almost as difficult to add up 60 votes in the Senate for the energy-only approach as it is to find 60 votes for a climate bill.

"The energy bill is not popular with either side," said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), top Republican on the energy committee. But Democrats may still decide they need an accomplishment on energy before the November election.

"I expect they would want to present something," Dillon said.

Environmentalists and liberal senators from coastal states have never liked the offshore drilling provisions in the bill, which would allow rigs 45 miles off the Florida coast. And with oil gushing out of a well 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, the political momentum is on the side of opponents.

"The Bingaman bill is waiting in the wings," said Mike Gravitz, oceans advocate for Environment America. "But there are lots of negatives to it."

Republican opponents said it did not do enough to encourage states to allow offshore drilling because it did not cut states in on the royalties. And others complained that there was not enough encouragement for building new nuclear power plants.

The political essence of the Bingaman bill is a deal to trade drilling off the coast of Florida for a "renewable energy standard," or RES, ordering utilities to use more renewables. The deal is that environmentalists and industry both get something they want but not everything.

It sounds workable in principle. The bill passed out of committee with four Republican votes.

But six Republicans voted against it for reasons as varied as nuclear power and property rights. There are many in industry who think the Republicans' complaints could be resolved. But the prospect of a solid bloc of GOP opposition leaves little or no room for intra-party disagreements among Democratic senators.

And two Democrats voted against the bill for diametrically opposite reasons. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey voted "no" because he opposes drilling. But Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana opposed it because it was not pro-drilling enough.

Landrieu cast her "no" vote after the committee shot down proposals to give coastal states a cut of the royalties from oil and gas drilled off their shores. Called "revenue sharing," the practice is supported by the oil and gas industry because it smooths the way for state approvals.

Landrieu's opposition reflects the position of pro-drilling coastal Democrats who say they need revenue sharing to get them to the table. Virginia's two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) support drilling, but only with revenue sharing.

But powerful interior Democratic centrists, like Bingaman and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the leader of efforts to drill off Florida, vehemently oppose revenue sharing. They joined with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) in a letter last week blasting the concept.

Bingaman and Dorgan might not vote against the bill if they are getting everything else they want in terms of drilling and an RES. But the prospect of losing out on billions of dollars in the future could cost votes among other interior-state lawmakers who are not as invested in the process.

But the opposition of senators like Menendez is only growing. Menendez and his New Jersey Democratic colleague flatly threatened to vote against a climate bill if it encouraged more offshore drilling. And that was before a spill off the Louisiana coast started gushing 42,000 gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a 600-square-mile sheen of crude that threatens coastlines from Louisiana to Florida.

"This latest incident should give the administration and our fellow Members of Congress pause in their effort to expand oil drilling along the East Coast. We plan to oppose any climate or energy legislation before the U.S. Senate that does not include significant safeguards for the Jersey Shore," the New Jersey senators said in a statement, even before it was clear that oil was leaking into the gulf.

Ten liberal senators declared their flat opposition to coastal drilling and the revenue sharing they believe would encourage it. And that did not include anti-offshore drilling Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine.

Some liberals signaled they might be willing to accept more drilling in exchange for strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But without those limits, and with concerns growing about the gulf spill, they are less and less likely to agree to such a deal.