Coal is winner even in ‘green’ Congress

After two years of campaign rhetoric and months of hearings, Congress is set this week to begin testing whether it can turn the push for renewable energy sought by President Obama into reality.

But the result is likely to fall short of Mr. Obama’s goals and, ironically, preserve the primacy of the most abundant and dirtiest fossil fuel: coal.

Lawmakers this spring plan to keep their distance from the president’s most ambitious and controversial proposals, including a mandate for utilities to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the creation of a system to reduce such emissions called “cap and trade.”

Yet they appear eager to appropriate billions of dollars for a little-tested technology that would prevent carbon dioxide from polluting the air by burying it underground, a process called “sequestration.”

Coal - and the many parts of the country that rely on coal for power generation - would be the prime beneficiaries of such funding. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee begins writing an energy bill Tuesday, and the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee may unveil his proposal to address climate change on the same day.

Neither effort is likely to move Mr. Obama’s policies as far as he wishes.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, intends to skirt for now the toughest energy-related issues. Those issues include the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s energy policy - a requirement that utilities provide 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

Mr. Bingaman plans to ask his committee to approve measures that would update appliance energy standards and improve renewable-energy worker training. The committee is also expected to double over four years the federal energy research budget and seek help from private companies to build an electric car battery.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman hinted that he will have trouble rounding up the votes to pass the president’s mandate. The California Democrat said his committee will have to find ways to limit job losses, especially in the industrial Midwest and in coal regions, even as it tries to restrain carbon-dioxide emissions. One of his hopes: to expand sequestration.

“We will need to make investments in new clean energy technologies, find ways to spur the development of carbon capture and sequestration, prevent the dislocation of industrial sectors including those vulnerable to trade, mitigate the effects on consumers, and assure that the costs of the program are economically sustainable,” Mr. Waxman said in a letter co-signed by other senior members of his committee.

Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said regional worries about the impact of a renewable energy mandate present a “huge problem” that will drag out the energy debate for months.

“You have to take into account the economic dislocations and costs that will be borne by consumers, period,” she said.

Mr. Obama also wants to expand the government’s ability to build high-voltage transmission lines to bring renewable energy to consumers. He also wants a law mandating cuts in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, primarily through a proposed market that caps the overall level of emissions and allows companies to trade permits on such emissions.

Both proposals face major obstacles. A bloc of a dozen Democratic senators say they oppose Mr. Obama’s cap-and-trade system, at least as currently configured. That’s more than enough lawmakers to block progress in the Senate.

A leader of the group, Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, said a cap-and-trade system won’t pass as long as it appears to transfer wealth from the Midwest to the coasts, imposes big financial burdens on utilities and their customers, and is not part of a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

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