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Senate Democrats Unveil Energy Agenda for 110th Congress

Oil and natural gas issues were noticeably absent from the energy legislative agenda that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unveiled Monday. The focus of the committee in the new Congress will be on nontraditional energy.

Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) plans to propose legislation to promote renewable energy and enhanced efficiency through mandates, tax incentives and increased spending on research and development.

The Senate Democrats' agenda leads off with calls to encourage the manufacture of electric and hybrid vehicles; update the nation's infrastructure to accommodate plug-in technology at major hubs, such as ports and airports; a binding, national renewable mandate, requiring 15% of the nation's electricity to be derived from clean energy sources by 2020; policies to encourage "smart grid" development, which will create a more reliable energy system; and measures to help lower utility bills for consumers and business by encouraging more productive use of electricity and natural gas through integrated energy management strategies, high-performance appliances and state-of-the-art green buildings.

Another key committee agenda item is global warming. Bingaman and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) circulated a draft climate proposal that seeks to establish a mandatory program for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The draft will serve as the basis for discussion in a series of workshops to be hosted by the committee beginning on Feb. 2.

President Bush is expected to address climate change in his State of the Union address tonight, but it's unlikely that he will go as far as Senate Democrats in calling for a mandatory reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Also topping the Senate committee's agenda is an extension through 2017 of existing tax credits for renewable energy, biofuels distribution and efficient vehicles, as well as new tax incentives for green buildings.

In addition, the panel plans to focus to accelerating the transition of the nation's transportation sector to energy sources other than imported petroleum, such as domestic biofuels, according to Bingaman. And it intends to push for increased research and technology development for alternative fuels, including breakthrough fuel and vehicle technologies based on hydrogen.

Although not listed on the agenda, Bingaman already has signaled that the committee will take up a bill, which cleared the House last week, that forces holders of flawed 1998-1999 offshore leases to renegotiate their contracts or pay a "conservation of resources fee" in order to bid on future government leases. It also repeals tax breaks for oil and gas producers and eliminates royalty relief for ultra-deep production in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, Bingaman has indicated that he will revise some of the provisions in the House measure that deal with recovering royalties and repealing tax breaks.

Also, the Senate panel has scheduled a hearing Thursday to explore the potential for expanding drilling in Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) areas. The hearing was requested by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), who was the chief architect of a bill in the last Congress that opened up a small area -- Lease Sale 181 -- in the Central Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas producers. The bill, which Congress passed and Bush enacted into law in December, makes 8.3 million acres available for drilling.

Despite the efforts of Domenici and other Republicans, it's unlikely legislation to expand OCS drilling will emerge from the committee. "That's not part of his [Bingaman's] agenda this year," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Bingaman.

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