- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2011

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said Monday that the crisis in oil markets sparked by Egypt’s political unrest should not divert Congress from pursuing long-term strategies to develop more clean and renewable energy resources.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, predicted that the latest Middle East crisis will amplify calls on Capitol Hill to expand U.S. oil production as a way to ease dependence on unstable foreign suppliers.

Congress usually gets very interested in these circumstances,” he said. “I’m sure there will be calls for us to ramp up production … but that would occur over a substantial period of time.”

Mr. Bingaman said his agenda for the new Congress will instead focus on a four-part plan that includes tax incentives and developing markets for renewable- energy companies in the U.S.

Mr. Obama came to office with an ambitious plan to rewrite U.S. energy policy and address the question of climate change and global warming. But his “cap-and-trade” plan to curb U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions died in the last Congress, and big GOP gains in the midterm elections have cast a major cloud over energy policy going forward.

Mr. Obama since taking office has made clear his desire to boost renewable-energy sources, including wind power, solar power and biofuels for vehicles. He referred to energy-related issues nine times last week in his State of the Union address. And the president has increasingly touted economic and employment spinoffs of “green jobs.”

But the alternative-fuel industry has faced a series of challenges, including financing, uncertainty over the future of tax incentives and finding customers, including conventional power companies, to purchase its energy. Mr. Bingaman said the country’s inconsistent approach has left U.S. producers at a competitive disadvantage.

“Our on-again, off-again tax credits are no match for [overseas] competitors,” he said. He also said that companies will relocate to places such as China and Europe, which are leading the way in alternative energy.

“The marketplace reality is that [companies] will be located closest to where the demand is,” he said.

Mr. Bingaman acknowledged that Obama administration officials have reached out to the committee to help draft his energy policy. But he said Congress is unlikely to take up Mr. Obama’s call during his State of the Union speech last week to curb subsidies to oil companies.

“It didn’t get much traction in previous Congresses, and I’d be surprised if it got much traction in the 112th,” he said.

Mr. Bingaman said he is open to including nuclear power in the mix of U.S. energy sources — as long as incentives continue for renewable-energy projects.

The chairman said some of the strongest bipartisan support on energy policy is for making electronic products more efficient, because it is seen as a prime generator of new jobs.

Mr. Obama will reveal key details of his energy plan when he presents his budget to Congress on Feb. 14.

Last year, Mr. Bingaman pushed legislation that would have required utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021. But the effort failed to get through the Senate, despite a big push by renewable-energy producers, environmental groups, governors and even some utilities, in part because of regional opposition.

Supporters of the broader clean-energy standard hope it can win over the support of Republicans who don’t support the narrower renewable-electricity standard. But it’s not clear yet that the proposal will win over many Republicans.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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