A member of the Senate Republican leadership believes a major expansion of electric cars is one way to address climate change, illustrating the party's fractured views on climate science. As some lawmakers search for a bipartisan agreement on clean energy, others see no reason for it.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, expressed confidence yesterday that the promise of increasing America's energy independence at a time of high gas prices could drive the bickering Congress to cooperate on an electric car bill he introduced with Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat.
But Alexander also embraced climate change as a man-made problem that the government has a responsibility to correct. That counters a host of statements by Republicans who expressed skepticism, or denial, about the impacts of society's emissions while campaigning last year.
"My view on climate change is of course it's occurring. Anyone can see that," Alexander said at an event hosted by National Journal yesterday. "The big argument is what you do about it. ... I think what you do about it is take steps."
The question now is whether that go-slow approach will be adopted by Congress, which has been feuding over partisan symbols like expanded oil drilling and repealing oil company tax deductions. Yet behind the campaign-style maneuvering are a handful of energy bills that are grasping for traction before presidential electioneering and political theater overtake serious legislating.
They seek to steer the country's transportation system away from gasoline, which accounted for 33 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, by promoting the use of natural gas in trucks, advancing electric cars and renewable energy, and saving power. That could have an impact on transportation emissions, 65 percent of which come from personal car use.
Now is the time, in some people's view, to provide government incentives for the purchase of alternatively fueled cars. That would dovetail with high pump prices and spark consumers to buy more efficient and cleaner cars, supporters say.
White House: bill is 'underpinning' a broad effort
Alexander's bill, S. 948, provides $2 billion in grants over five years for "electric vehicle deployment communities," each of which could receive $250 million for developing a plan to add charging stations, update building codes and train new workers. Each community has to match 20 percent of the cost.
It also provides $300 million in grants and loan guarantees to help companies transform large fleets of work vehicles into electric-powered cars and trucks. The maximum grant is $20 million, with each company paying 80 percent of the conversion cost.
Another $375 million is provided for battery research, a deployment program at the Department of Energy, and to help federal agencies buy electric cars.
Alexander wants the bill to be paid for through reductions to other programs, including tax credits for renewable energies like wind power. He described wind turbines yesterday as providing "a puny amount of unreliable energy." He also suggested that tax deductions for oil companies could be considered.
The White House might see Alexander's position as an apple in an orchard with few of them. The bill represents a limited climate effort compared with the failed cap-and-trade play in the last Congress, and it doesn't directly address the electricity sector -- the nation's largest source of emissions.
Still, Alexander's emphasis on saving energy comes as many Republicans are focusing on expanding domestic supply of fossil fuels. The bill is a $3 billion "jump-start," Alexander said, that would thrust the country toward replacing half of its cars with electric vehicles in 20 years.
Heather Zichal, President Obama's deputy assistant for energy and climate change, said the electric car bill could be the "underpinning" of a larger clean energy measure.
"You can see a package where this is the base," Zichal said yesterday. "We've been focused on finding those areas where there is a history of bipartisan support. You could certainly see, especially given the focus on gas prices, folks coalescing around a smaller package that makes the [research and development investment], does the efficiency, and that has bipartisan support on electric cars."
Rubio likes electric cars
It's unclear when, or even if, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will mark up Alexander's bill. If it does go to the Senate floor for a vote, it might press unlikely lawmakers into a difficult decision: Support it and appear to be encouraging government intervention in the market, or oppose a measure that could slowly tighten the spigot on foreign oil.
"I want the U.S. to lead the world on electric cars," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a conservative freshman. "How we accomplish that, I'm open to debate on it."
Rubio wouldn't comment directly on Alexander's bill, but he questioned whether the government should be promoting one technology over another.
The electric car support effort comes as the Republican Party emphasizes its role as a fiscal watchman. GOP leaders in the House are currently negotiating hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in spending cuts in return for raising the national debt limit this summer.
"I'm not gonna support any kind of direct payment subsidy or incentive," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina who was elected in the conservative wave last November. "I don't subscribe to the whole man-made global warming and carbon emissions affecting the climate, anyway."
Yet like other first-year Republicans interviewed, he supports the concept of vehicles being fueled by electricity and natural gas. Duncan said he might support tax breaks for those purchases if they're funded through royalties from new oil drilling.
Does the 'NAT GAS Act' pick winners?
A separate effort is under way in the House to expand the use of natural gas in trucks. The bill, H.R. 1380, or the "NAT GAS Act," was offered by Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) and other lawmakers from both parties.
It would expand tax credits to provide between $7,500 and $64,000 for the conversion of trucks to compressed natural gas. It would also increase a property tax credit for companies that build refueling stations, providing up to $100,000 per station.
The bill has attracted a diverse array of supporters. About 185 co-sponsors have signed on, drawing an arc across the political spectrum to include liberals like Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and conservatives like Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
Industry giants are also orbiting the bill. T. Boone Pickens, the natural gas mogul, is pushing hard for its passage, while Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate owned by libertarians Charles and David Koch, warns of potential market distortions.
In the meantime, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power doesn't have any immediate plans to advance the bill, said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), the panel's chairman.
The measure has strong bipartisan support, but not a majority.
"We don't need to be out there promoting one energy over another," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a freshman Republican from Kansas. "I'd like to see more natural gas used, but it's going to develop and it's going to develop on its own."
Back in the Senate, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) offered a plan to promote every kind of low-carbon transportation fuel and new infrastructure. That avoids Republican criticism that the government is picking winners, but it hasn't attracted a GOP co-sponsor.
The bill would reduce the amount of Middle Eastern oil kept in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saving about $1.2 billion a year, Wyden said. That money would be used to fund the expansion of alternative transportation fuels and refueling stations.
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