Not Your Father’s Energy Committee

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., January 28, 2011 – The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 112th Congress won’t be your father’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (and certainly not Lisa Murkowski’s father’s committee).

With a slew of newcomers – mostly Republican – and none of them particularly attuned to the way the committee has historically operated, look for a more partisan, contentious, and ideological committee. That also suggests an outlook for a committee that doesn’t get very much done in the next two years.

But the new lineup also represents increased strength on the committee for an interest already well represented: coal.

So it doesn’t look good in the Senate Energy Committee for President Obama’s “clean energy standard” initiative, in whatever form it eventually emerges from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the trip uphill to Congress.

For as long as I’ve been covering the Senate Energy Committee – and that’s more than three decades – the committee has been mostly non-ideological, bipartisan, and generally pro-industry. The fault lines on the committee have been regional, divided along home-state resources lines: coal states versus oil states, for example. That made compromises easy. It was a matter of giving each interest what it wanted, in return for supporting the others’ resource agenda. The committee was also dominated by producer states, with consumer interests seldom at the forefront.

The former and current chairman, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, represents a significant energy producing state, with oil and gas, coal, and uranium prominent products of the Land of Enchantment. He’s been a master at divvying up legislative goodies to assemble majorities for energy legislation over his years alternating as chairman and ranking Democrat.

That’s going to be harder now. The five freshmen from the Grand Old Party have their parochial resource interests, for sure. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, represents an important coal state. He replaces Jim Bunning, another Kentucky Republican and promoter of coal on the committee. Utah’s Mike Lee also hails from coal country, replacing Bob Bennett of Utah, whom he knocked off in a GOP intra-party ambush.

Lee and Paul are also founders of the so-far anemic, four-member Senate Tea Party caucus, along with their mentor and promoter, Sen. Jim DeMint, the quixotic South Carolina Republican. The fourth member is Jerry Moran of Kansas. It’s unlikely either Paul or Lee will be orthodox and predictable.

The other new GOP members of the energy panel are better known: Rob Portman of Ohio, Dan Coats of Indiana, and John Hoeven of North Dakota. All represent coal states and can be expected to protect and advance interests of the coal industry during the work of the committee. The returning Republicans are Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (she’s the senior Republican and her dad was once the chairman), Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jim Risch of Idaho, and Bob Corker of Tennessee

The partisan balance on the committee is 12 Democrats and 10 Republican. On the majority side, the most significant newbie is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who rescued a faltering campaign by taking aim (literally, with a rifle in a TV ad) at Obama’s coal-antagonistic energy policy, the failed cap-and-trade legislation. Also joining committee Democrats for the first time are Al Franken of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware, both expected to be dependable votes for whatever the White House wants done.

The returning Democrats are Bingaman, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democrat in everything but name only, is also a committee member.

What does the committee membership bode for Obama? His clean energy standard proposal will find a skeptical reception. The White House cleaned up the “renewable energy standard” concept to make it more palatable to folks not much interested in wind and solar, while adding nuclear and “clean coal,” without defining what clean means. But if it walks like a renewable standard, and quacks like a renewable standard, then…well, you know the punch line.

Obama first problems will be among his fellow Democrats. Landrieu has well-known grievances with the Obama approach to energy, growing out of the administration’s on-again, off-again approach to offshore oil and its general antipathy to oil companies. Udall, despite environmentalist credentials, represents a major energy producing state. Bingaman himself has had nothing to say about the Obama state-of-the-union proposal (nor has Murkowski).

Bingaman is likely to have problems with Landrieu. She said, “I don’t think the renewable portfolio standard the way it is drafted now has a chance so we’re going to have to try a new approach.” Then there is the always ebullient Manchin, who said of Obama’s inclusion of what is likely to be carbon capture and storage as the definition of “clean coal,” “We’re going to give them all the clean coal they need.” That’s likely to be a lot more than the wind and solar advocates can stomach.

The real problems begin on the Republican side, where the five new voices add considerable mystery to any legislative outcome. Paul made his political chops by favoring chopping all forms of subsidies as part of a general push for less spending and less government. He’s unlikely to be philosophically in tune with federal mandates on how companies generate electricity. All he has said so far is that he wants to see a concrete proposal so he can study it. Utah’s Lee has made it clear he’s most interested in federal lands issues. Their mentor, DeMint, told Politico that he’s not in favor of Obama’s plan, which “is trying to pick winners and losers.” Tea partiers, he said, “are for a clean environment but they want to do it rationally.”

In 2009, Bingaman was able to maneuver through his committee to get approval for a renewable mandate as part of a larger energy bill that died after it passed the committee. It doesn’t look like he will be able to duplicate that feat, much less get something through the full Senate. If he does manage that daunting task, it will be through major concessions to coal interests.