Democratic Sen. Bingaman of New Mexico discusses ANWR prospects, energy bill

Do Senate Democrats have the votes to stop ANWR language from being included in the budget process? What are their chances of blocking the administration's drilling plans later in the session? The Senate Energy Committee's senior Democrat, Jeff Bingaman, joins OnPoint to discuss the ANWR vote, the energy bill's prospects, MTBE, endangered species and more.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Today we're joined by Senator Jeff Bingaman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Mary O'Driscoll, a senior energy reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Senator, thanks for being here.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Nice to be here.

Colin Sullivan: It looks like its showdown week for ANWR in the budget resolution in the Senate. I'm wondering, first of all, whether or not, it appears that the pro-drilling contingent has the votes possibly, slightly, to get it through on the budget resolution. Do you think you have the votes? How close do you think it's going to be?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't know. This is, of course, the first of several encounters on the issue. This week I gather there'll be an effort to strike a provision in the budget resolution so that the funds would not be provided for there, but even if they were to keep the funds in the budget resolution then they would, of course, have to pass enacting legislation or authorizing legislation later in the year. The chances of turning that back or not seeing that enacted is probably greater than the chances of defeating them this week. Although I don't know what the vote is gonna be this week.

Colin Sullivan: So how does that process go forward then? If it doesn't move through on the budget resolution on the Senate floor and then it goes to the Senate Energy Committee for reconciliation, by what means will you be able to stop that in committee?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't know that we will in committee, but at some stage, I mean first of all, they haven't passed a budget reconciliation bill now for several years. They haven't been able to get agreement among Republicans on what should be in a budget reconciliation bill. So there's always a chance that they would not get a reconciliation bill passed and of course that the vehicle that they have identified to use to pass the authorizing legislation. Even if the votes are there are in the Senate to do the authorizing, it's not clear that the votes are there to pass a budget reconciliation bill.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well I'm wondering, there's been some well publicized efforts by both the Democrats and Republicans on the committee that you're on, on the Senate Energy Committee, to work more closely together to try to get an energy bill through. It's called glasnost, you know, that everyone's trying to work together and be friendly instead of the confrontations that went on in the past few years. How would Senate passage of a budget, including the ANWR provisions in the budget, would that do anything to sour the relations between the Democrats and Republicans on your panel?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: I don't really think so. I mean, using the budget resolution and budget reconciliation process to enact this, that's a sort of a tried-and-true, accepted way to try to do things that you don't have 60 votes to get done.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: I don't think anybody would be shocked or feel like this was an underhanded move. I think that the Republicans have made it clear from the first that they were going to try to do this. They were going to try to do it as part of budget reconciliation. The fact that they are proceeding to do that, I don't think it hardens feelings. Obviously, there's going to be a great disagreement about whether it should be done, and I hope that we have the votes to prevent it.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well I wanted to ask a few more questions about the energy bill because that's going to be coming up probably sometime after Easter. How is it that you get to this point where you've been trying to draft an energy bill for four years and just have not been able to get it through the Senate? Why is that?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I think in each case you can look at what happened. Each of the last two Congresses we have passed an energy bill through the Senate with pretty good bipartisan support. Then we go to conference with the House of Representatives and they've insisted on certain positions that we've disagreed with and they've insisted on adding some provisions that we disagreed with strongly or many of us in the Senate disagreed with. On that basis the bill, in one case, the first 107th Congress we couldn't complete the conference.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: I think we were close to completing it and then the election occurred and we came back for a lame-duck session. Then they knew that they had picked up additional seats, and they were going to be in the majority in the Senate, and they had very little interest at that point in concluding conference. So in the 108th Congress, this last Congress, the bill came back from conference, but of course Democrats had not been involved in the conference and many of us resisted the bill because of the provisions that were in it and quite a few Republicans joined us.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right. Well I wanted to know, particularly on that issue, that even if you're able to come up with a conference agreement of some sort or come up with, be able to conduct a conference with the House, that the House added the MTBE language that gave the --

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Right.

Mary O'Driscoll: Product liability protection to the MTBE producers and there's every indication that they're going to try to do that again this year and that was really what hung the bill up in 2003. Is there any indication you have that that will end any differently this time?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't have any indication that it will end differently this time. I do hope that before we get to that stage we can persuade the House to try to do that in a different way if they feel like that is legislation that is "must pass" legislation for the House of Representatives. They could try to find another vehicle perhaps to propose that on or something. What we've tried to do, what I've tried to do, and I think Senator Domenici is also inclined to try to do this, is to keep the energy bill focused on the energy issues and try to keep some of the non-energy issues on other legislation or for another day or whatever.

Colin Sullivan: Now taking a step back, as you said, this is the third Congress in a row that you're trying to move an energy bill. How frustrating do you find it not being able to do so and do you think that's a product of too many lobbyists in this town on both sides of an individual, like if you take electricity reform, for example. You have private power versus public power dragging that process down. MTBE you have ethanol interests versus MTBE interests. Are there too many warring lobbyists that make moving a comprehensive energy bill that much tougher?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't know. I think on some issues, obviously different groups lobby heavily for a point of view, but I really think that if we can get agreement between the White House and most of us in Congress on the major provisions of the bill we ought to be able to enact a bill. The White House has not been that involved in the past two Congresses in the detail of what would come out of conference. I think perhaps, I've urged the current Secretary of Energy, Mr. Bodman, to take a more active role in the negotiating of a bill this year, because I think it's very much in the country's interest that we pass an energy bill and there are an awful lot of provisions that we can agree to pass. I think that we get diverted because there's some of these outlier issues that either say, OK, you've got to include that or we won't agree to go ahead on an energy bill.

Colin Sullivan: Have you heard a response from Secretary Bodman? Has he said he'd be --

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, he has said that he's going to, he sees that as one of the central parts of his job, is trying to see that we passed an energy bill. So I hope that translates into some real hands-on involvement by him.

Mary O'Driscoll: I would like to know, the tax provision that the White House called for was $6.7 billion for the energy bill that was called for in this year's budget that they proposed. The budget proposal from the Senate has $6.5 billion dedicated to spending and tax provisions for the energy bill. Is that enough to be able to get an energy bill through Congress, $6.5 billion? When two years ago it was $30 billion, last year Senator Domenici's slimmed-down version of the energy bill was $14 billion. So is $6.5 billion going to cut it?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't know if it will cut it, it probably won't in the final analysis, but of course many of the tax related provisions, that's energy related provisions, we wound up passing last year as an add-on to the corporate tax bill that went through Congress. So a lot of those things that people were advocating for and hoping would be part of an energy package wound up being enacted without an energy package being passed. So I wouldn't think that we would have to go back and do anything like that again.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. I wanted to move on to something that's closer to home for you, the Otera Mesa dispute. Governor Richardson is opposed to the BLM plans to explore or to expand oil and gas exploration at the Otera Mesa site. Do you think, in your opinion, does the governor have the ability to be able to overturn a federal decision made by the BLM on that kind of an issue?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, he can't overturn it, but he can certainly, I think, make it difficult for the BLM to carry through and actually bring the drilling into being and have it happen. I have generally said that I thought the governor was right in some of the restrictions that he was trying to put on the drilling activity. He has indicated that he will use various means, he hasn't been too specific about what they are, but he said he will use various means to try to prevent the BLM from going forward. I don't think he has a legal right under the law to override the BLM on it, but clearly they have to have various state permits to move equipment in and out and do a variety of things.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well as the oil and gas industry have been involved in quite a few projects in New Mexico over the years and there are some, besides the Otera Mesa, there are some others. Is there, is the influence of the oil and gas industry, the economic influence and the political influences, still pretty extensive in New Mexico, or is it waning or do you see it increasing or what?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: No, it's very extensive. We are a major oil and gas producer in this country. I think more of a natural gas producer now than an oil producer, although we still produce oil and it's a very large part of our economy. Of course our state budget is substantially benefited by the royalties that are paid on the production of both oil and gas.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK.

Colin Sullivan: If we could step back to ANWR for a couple of minutes. I'm surprised you said that, if Republicans, if the pro-drilling contingent in the Senate can get 52 votes to move it through the budget resolution, you don't think that they can get those same 52 votes when the reconciliation language comes up on the floor?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: No, they could probably get the same 52 votes if they had 52 votes in the budget resolution, it's just that they're not, there are all sorts of other things in the budget reconciliation bill which, I mean it's not clear that because they would agree upon what ought to happen with ANWR they could agree upon enough other things to actually pass a reconciliation bill. That's the point.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Moving on to another New Mexico issue, recently the city of Albuquerque cut a deal with environmentalists to deal with water supply flows to save a fish in the Rio Grande river called the silvery minnow. Could you comment on that agreement and do you think that's the kind of model agreement that you'll see going forward that would help endangered species recovery?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, the agreement is one that I have supported. I think our problem, and I raised this in our budget hearings this year in the Energy Committee, our problem has been that the Department of Interior has not asked for the budget that's necessary in order to go ahead and carry forward on this biological opinion which is the core part of the agreement. So it's one of these things where everyone agrees in principle on what should be done, but now the federal government's committed something in the range of $200 million over the next several years to implement the opinion. In the budget they requested or submitted to Congress they haven't asked for that money.

Mary O'Driscoll: I wanted to ask, kind of along the lines of the Endangered Species Act, you raised, in the context of the Lynn Scarlett confirmation hearing last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists' report --

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Right.

Mary O'Driscoll: That says that the White House has been suppressing reports by its own scientists and among those are to limit scientists from commenting on habitat protection for endangered species. What is your concern about that and are you looking to try to, are you trying to look into that anymore, in any more detail?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I don't know what follow on we'll do, but obviously it's of great concern if you've got people, a substantial percentage of the scientists who are, who were interviewed for that report saying that their ability to give their frank opinion is impeded because they feel that there's political pressures on them. I think that we can only make good public policy if we have honest scientific advice and if it's all going to be skewed we'll wind up in the same mess that the Soviet Union used to find itself in, where basically if you didn't agree with Stalin's view of what the science ought to be they didn't want to hear from you. We don't need that in this country.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. I wanted to ask too, you've raised some questions about funding of the state Oversight Bureau for DOE activities at Los Alamos and that it's been under funded. Is there any continuing concern about that?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: The state Oversight Bureau --

Mary O'Driscoll: Yeah, the State Oversight Bureau for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the New Mexico Environment Department's Oversight Bureau has been under funded in the past few years --

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Um-hmm, right.

Mary O'Driscoll: And you've expressed some concerns about that.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Yeah, this is a constant, this is an issue that comes up nearly every year. This is, you know we had an environmental evaluation group which was set up by the Department of Energy to help the state monitor primarily the WIPP project down at Carlsbad, but we have always been trying to get adequate resources at the state level to monitor the various nuclear related activities that the federal government's involved in. I think that's what you're referring to.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right, OK. So this is a perennial problem that you think has --

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: It's a perennial problem, yeah.

Colin Sullivan: If I could get you to take a step back, do you think Democrats are doing a good enough job of making environmental issues important in campaigns? I mean Senator Kerry may have had an opportunity to go after President Bush on the environment during the campaign and some critics believe that he didn't make a strong enough case for bringing the environment to the forefront. Do you think it needs to be a bigger issue for Democrats going forward?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Yeah, I do think it needs to be a big issue going forward. I think this next year for example, I think some of the issues which the administration is just taking a very perverse position on, things like global warming for example. I mean I think that most people in this country now believe we should be doing something responsible to deal with these kinds of issues and don't really think that the administration has been doing that. I think that that's an appropriate issue to run a campaign on and I think many members of Congress can be held accountable for their failure to step up and speak up on the issues.

Colin Sullivan: How have Democrats failed us? Have Democrats failed as well to step up?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well, I think they have. I think Democrats have not failed to step up as much as perhaps they have failed to speak up in a campaign setting. I think most of the Democrats in the Senate feel strongly about some of these environmental issues and vote the right way on them, but when they go to run in campaigns, of course each state's different and I think that as a general matter the public does care about environmental issues and you've got a lot of people out there who will vote on the basis of how candidates stand on environmental issues.

Colin Sullivan: I was also interested to see that Senator Cantwell's going to be offering the ANWR amendment on the Senate floor as reported by various media, including us, various media outlets. Is that part of a strategy to put Cantwell out there on a major issue going into her re-election next year? She's apparently going to have a tough race in 2006, I'm wondering if that's part of the strategy there.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Well I don't know if it's the strategy on this issue. I haven't discussed who thought of her offering this or if she wanted, particularly wanted to. I would assume that she particularly wanted to. She, of course, has been very outspoken on a lot of issues related to energy, and she's been the point person on a lot of those issues in our committee and on the Senate floor during debate.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We're going to have to let that be the last word, we're out of time. Senator Bingaman, Mary O'Driscoll thank you both for being here today.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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