Democrats struggling for consensus on climate bills
With competing bills in the House and Senate, Democrats struggle to agree on key climate and energy reforms.
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One key issue has been offshore drilling. On Tuesday, the committee approved an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would permit drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico 45 miles or more from the coast of Florida. It would allow drilling closer to shore in the Destin Dome, an area about 25 miles off the coast of the Florida panhandle where companies discovered natural gas years ago. (Though longstanding presidential and congressional restrictions on offshore drilling were lifted last year, the eastern Gulf of Mexico remains under special protection that was part of a 2006 energy bill.)Skip to next paragraph
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The muddled politics of offshore drilling cross party lines. Five of the committee's 13 Democrats voted against Dorgan's amendment, including Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is concerned about potential drilling off his home state, but Republicans supported it. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a strong supporter of offshore drilling, also voted against Dorgan's amendment but only because she wanted some of the federal royalties diverted to state coffers. Her own earlier effort to direct a portion of royalties to the states failed, in part because the committee's Democratic majority won the backing of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who believes that the federal Treasury needs the money from drilling in federal waters.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, meanwhile, won support for an amendment that would require the Interior Department to lease areas 180 days after environmental approvals are given for offshore drilling.
Democrats, environmental groups and wind industry executives are also sparring over a provision known as the renewable electricity standard, which would require electric utilities to use renewable energy sources for 15 percent of their power generation by 2021. But critics argue that the standard has been severely weakened by special exceptions. Utilities can use energy-efficiency measures to meet 4 percentage points of that amount. States could petition to get credit for more energy-efficiency measures and lower the renewable requirement further.
Because of an amendment by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., whose state relies heavily on coal-fired power, utilities would also be able to pay a relatively modest fine for failing to comply. The money would go to individual states, which could return the money to the utilities or subsidize nuclear power or carbon capture and storage projects. The amendment passed with strong Republican support.
Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, also inserted an amendment that would remove new nuclear power generation from the total energy used to calculate renewable minimums. Nuclear power is not considered renewable, but its supporters note that it does not emit greenhouse gases.
The draft measure would also ease restrictions on the use of crude from Canadian oil sands, which produce more greenhouse gases than ordinary petroleum and which could face obstacles under the renewable fuel standard adopted last year. The amendment passed by voice vote. The "committee correctly recognized the importance of Canadian oil to our nation's energy and economic security," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. He said oil companies would expand and upgrade refineries to handle the Canadian crude and would create thousands of new jobs.