Senate committee wades into energy future

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By Roger Snodgrass

While President-elect Obama outlined his economic plans in a major speech on Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held its first hearing of the year on a major component of that plan.

In the text of his speech, Obama laid out a vision of a “clean energy economy,” calling for “doubling the production of alternative energy in the next three years.” He said that American taxpayers would save billions of dollars on energy bills through programs that would modernize 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of 2 million American homes and that millions of new jobs would be created “building solar panels and wind turbines, constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings and developing the technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain.”

“Obviously energy policy is very interconnected with the state of our economy,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman said meanwhile in the Capitol.

As New Mexico’s new senior senator and chairman of the committee, he introduced the hearing as a broad overview of energy issues with some blueprints for meeting future energy needs in an environmentally responsible way.

Obama has called for major investments over the next decade to create 5 million "green" energy jobs and much of that project will be negotiated and given policy directions through the workings of the Senate energy committee.

“The President-elect has made energy a high priority for his new administration, and we look forward to working with him on that,” Bingaman said.

The committee heard testimony from four experts representing a progressive think tank, a non-partisan group of business executives and retired senior military officers, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Western Governors’ Association.

Given the brief opening statements by the panel and the variety of interests and questions by the senators, the focus of the discussion flitted from topic to topic.

“We’ve got hundreds of subjects that have been put on the table for discussion here,” Bingaman said.

Items under discussion included work on improving the electrical grid, whether the federal government should have extra authority for laying out where transmission lines would go and how that infrastructure would be paid for equitably.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., used his time to challenge the “cap and trade” system for carbon emissions, one of the prevailing assumptions for slowing global warming by permitting carbon polluters to buy pollution credits from companies that don’t need them.

“What if we just put a price on carbon, period, and did away with all other subsidies? Wouldn’t that be a simpler way to make investments in the future?” he asked, sparking a mini-debate with his questions.

Queries about nuclear energy alternatives were side-stepped by the panel at first, but at Corker’s insistence, Kit Batten, senior fellow of the Center for American Progress – the most liberal perspective represented on the panel – said, “We certainly see it as part of our mix moving forward,” noting that there were some outstanding issues, namely the mounting inventory of nuclear waste, that need to be addressed.”

Karen Harbert of the Institute for 21st Century Energy said the chamber's priorities included a proposal to raise the ceiling on a loan guarantee program, “so we can get more nuclear power plants built.”

The hearing was webcast on the committee’s website.

“I agree with President-elect Obama that shifting to a green energy economy is the key to creating good jobs,” said Bingaman in an announcement at the end of the day. “New Mexico is already a leader in renewable energy, and I think we will play an even greater role once Congress adopts the stimulus package that Mr. Obama outlined today.”