Growing a green economy

I believe there are three basic objectives for the energy industry in the modern era. First, to provide a reliable and ample supply. Second, to ensure that the supply is provided at the least cost to consumers. And third, to accomplish the first and second objectives with the least possible adverse effects on the environment.

To that end last December, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a bill that greatly enhances our energy efficiency, increases our use of homegrown biofuels, and—for the first time in three decades—strengthens our vehicle fuel economy standard. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was a great success, but we must continue to become more energy self-reliant by becoming more energy efficient and bolstering our use of renewable resources.

More attention to generation needed

We did a great deal for alternative sources of energy for transportation fuel in the recent bill. But the contribution that renewable forms of energy can make to electric power generation has been disappointing over the years, staying at only 2% to 3% of total supply. We need to pass a renewable electricity standard mandating that 15% of the nation’s electricity is derived from clean energy sources— including solar, geothermal, wind, and other renewable sources—by 2020.

We also need to pass a long-term extension of the tax incentives for generating electricity from renewable resources. Investing in renewable energy will increase our national security, create new jobs, and decrease the amount of harmful greenhouse gases that intensify the threat of global warming.

Agreements and disagreements about the climate challenge

Members of Congress have a growing awareness of the adverse impacts that greenhouse gases have on our global climate. For example, the Environment Committee reported a bill last December to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That bill, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, had the support of every Democrat on the panel and Republican Sen. John Warner (Va.).

I believe we should enact an economywide cap-and-trade system to deal with the greenhouse gas problem. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and I introduced a bill in last July: the Bingaman-Specter Low Carbon Economy Act. That bill has more modest targets than the Lieberman-Warner legislation as well as a technology payment (also known as a safety valve), which can be used in lieu of submitting allowances by regulated entities. (The Lieberman-Warner bill relies on an oversight board to monitor the credit market and intervene when costs get too high.)

A Senate floor debate on climate is scheduled for later this year. I am hopeful that it will mark a turning point in our response to global warming. But there are a number of issues that need to be resolved before we can legislate on climate. The way I see it, they can be put into one of two categories: issues on which there is broad agreement that they need to be resolved and issues that have clearly defined stakeholders with differing positions.

In the first category, almost everyone agrees that we need to protect U.S. competitiveness while developing the technologies that will help us significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. There is some disagreement on the best ways to address this challenge, but that circumstance is not leading to an adversarial atmosphere, with stakeholders and interest groups fighting each other.

There is less consensus on hot-button issues such as cost, scope of coverage, allocation, and state preemption. Each of these issues has clearly defined interest groups with positions that are in direct conflict with the others.

Upcoming debate provides opportunity

How these issues are handled over the next few months will determine the outcome of climate legislation in 2008. My preference is to work with senators and stakeholders to find compromises so that we can legislate this year. There is a danger, however, that compromise will be stalled if stakeholders opt to use these issues to set the bar for the next administration or Congress.

Despite the difficulties associated with energy-related climate change concerns, I believe that many senators are serious about trying to find common ground during this Congress. The upcoming debate on climate is our chance to find practical ways to realize a secure and environmentally sound energy future. ?

—Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.