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Partisan discord weighs down energy policy

Democrats and Republicans agree the United States should diversify its energy portfolio--but the details of how to get there are much more controversial.

WASHINGTON--Democrats and Republicans share some common goals in terms of energy policy--both parties want a diversified energy portfolio and a lower dependence on foreign oil. With different motives for achieving those goals, however, as well as opposing views on how to accomplish them, partisan politicians in Congress could stall the ambitious energy and climate change legislation currently up for debate.

If the House cap-and-trade bill or the comprehensive energy legislation currently under works in the Senate are delayed, it will certainly not be for a lack of discussion.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday began three full days of hearings on climate change legislation, sponsored by Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which calls for national mandates for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Wrapping up with testimony from former Vice President Al Gore and former Republican Senator John Warner on Friday, the committee will hear from a total 54 witnesses.

There have already been eight hearings this year within the full committee and its subcommittees relating to energy and climate change, and Waxman hopes to move the bill to the full House before the Congress breaks for Memorial Day recess.

John McCain harshly criticized President Obama's cap-and-trade plan on Tuesday. Stephanie Condon/ CNET

All 23 Republicans on the committee, however, signed a letter sent Tuesday to Waxman and Markey asking for more hearings. The Republicans primarily expressed concern over the lack of any specifications on permit allocations versus auctions.

"The manner in which you will address this issue is the cornerstone of the legislation," the letter says. "Without it the bill is simply not finished and not ripe to be marked up or accurately discussed in the context of a hearing."

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is also currently working on a comprehensive energy bill that could potentially encompass a number of facets of energy policy, including a renewable energy standard, transmission line development, and energy market financing. Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) also wants to forward the bill to the full Senate for a floor vote by Memorial Day, with at least three more meetings to amend and reshape the bill planned.

However, ranking Republican Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on Tuesday the bill should remain in development into the summer, given the complexity of the issues.

"I do have concerns we won't be given the time sufficient in committee to draft the policy," she said at an energy forum hosted by the Reform Institute. "Senator Bingaman and I are saying we need to be working through the committee process, but on the other hand you'll hear comments made by the (Senate) majority leader and folks on the House side that we need to move it more quickly--that we need to have it done yesterday."

Climate policy vs. energy policy
Murkowski said it was unwise for House Democrats to "hijack (energy policy) as a vehicle for climate change legislation," and that a system to put a price on carbon emissions should be tackled independently from energy policy.

"Climate change is a serious issue, and we must take steps to address it, but we should be honest about such a price tag (regulating carbon) would carry," she said.

At the same event, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) excoriated President Obama for the cap-and-trade plan in his budget, which anticipates raising $650 billion from the auction of carbon credits from 2012 to 2019.

"I am a supporter for a strong cap and trade system, but I cannot align myself with a giant capital slush fund...used to pay for health care reform or other programs that fit with this president's agenda," he said. "The budget the president puts together undermines our ability to work together on this crisis."

The views expressed during Tuesday's energy forum were mostly conservative, though the Reform Institute bills itself as a nonpartisan organization. McCain and former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey were the founding co-chairs of the institute. In spite of the largely conservative sentiment, though, a number of speakers at the event took a more favorable view of the president's climate change policies.

"We are at a very special time in Washington in that we have a president who has proven with the checkbook he is sincere in the promise" of energy and climate change reform, said Eric Schwartz, chairman of the nonpartisan, not-for-profit Securing America's Future Energy. "The stimulus package was the largest energy bill by far. It's a huge amount of money, and the commitment is pretty deep."

"If you believe him, the president wants to do things in a bipartisan way," he added.

The partisan controversy over energy policy, the speakers explained, largely stems from the two major parties' divergent priorities: Republicans are interested in diversifying energy sources primarily for the sake of security, while Democrats are more interested in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, they said.

"We ought to be able to develop a bipartisan solution around those goals," said Dave Conover, an attorney for the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Good energy policy is good climate policy."

Certain issues, however, are expected to be especially difficult to forge compromises on.

For instance, Murkowski said she was concerned about Bingaman's interest in a provision that would require utilities nationwide to abide by a common renewable energy standard.

"We've got to come to terms with our relationship with fossil fuels," she said. "While we're moving towards a low carbon energy future, we have a long ways to go."

She also said the committee will have a difficult time agreeing on state versus federal eminent domain authority for building transmission lines.

"We have reached an impasse in terms of transmission siting," she said. "That's one of the tougher nuts we have to crack."