Wyden — due to become energy panel’s top Democrat — sketches out priorities

Source: Josh Kurtz, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who is almost certain to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the next Congress regardless of whether his party keeps the Senate majority, said today that he sees “a lot of opportunities for bipartisanship” in the years ahead.

Speaking at a forum here sponsored by National Journal, the Atlantic and the utility giant Southern Co., Wyden said that despite the poisonous partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, he believes elections present “an opportunity for renewal” that senators from both parties will want to take advantage of. Wyden and the committee’s top Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, traveled together to Alaska just last week for a fact-finding tour, and he said the two have vowed to cooperate whenever possible.

But Wyden was not beyond offering a few partisan digs of his own. He rejected Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s proposal to turn the regulation of oil and gas drilling on federal lands over to the states, and said Democrats can score political points by highlighting certain differences with Republicans on energy policy.

Wyden said that as a Westerner, “I always want to make sure we have a broader berth for the states.” But he called Romney’s plan “fundamentally skewed” and “a mistake,” because it ignores the fact that “federal lands are multiple use lands.”

Wyden said Republicans have been promoting “a simplistic ‘drill, baby, drill!’ approach” to energy exploration, and said Democrats can claim credit for the growth of the natural gas industry and reduction in carbon emissions.

“That’s a good story for us to tell, and we’re going to tell it,” he said.

Looking ahead, Wyden said he wants to change the conversation on energy policy so that policymakers aren’t just focusing on energy production but also on the cost of energy — for producer and consumer alike. He also said he envisions a “filling station of the future” in which biofuels and electric power are being offered to motorists in addition to gasoline.

Wyden said that despite the bankruptcy of the solar manufacturer Solyndra, which cost the Department of Energy $535 million in loan guarantees, he wants the government to continue funding research on renewable energy development. He said one of the “takeaways” of the Solyndra fallout is that the renewable and clean energy debate “all gets dumped in the same bucket,” making it impossible for lawmakers to distinguish between the sectors.

Wyden, who also sits on the Finance Committee, predicted that a production tax credit for the wind energy industry would be extended during the lame-duck session of Congress after the election, and said energy policy would be part of a broader debate on tax reform in the next Congress.

Wyden lamented that the debate over climate change has become so emotional but said there are ways around that.

“Part of it is how you even raise the issue,” he said. “If you use the term ‘climate change,’ you see in the Energy Committee that it gets really passionate in a hurry.”

But Wyden said it becomes easier to find “common-ground approaches that get you where you need to go” when lawmakers talk about renewable fuels, geothermal and wind.

Wyden, who has already toured Oregon and West Virginia with Murkowski in recent months in addition to Alaska, said he expects the pair to travel to North Dakota to examine the energy sector there sometime after the election.

Wyden also paid tribute to departing committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who has been seen as a model of bipartisanship — or at least as someone striving to lower the political temperature — by most observers of the panel.

“Chairman Bingaman is an outstanding legislator,” Wyden said. “He has had as tough a hand to play as anyone I have seen in my time of public service.”