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Senators Promise Balanced Energy Bill

Incoming chairman vows to check ‘gridlock at the door’ to create ‘transformative’ policy

Incoming Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden held out an olive branch Thursday to feuding colleagues, signaling he is open to a deal on offshore drilling revenue sharing that could end 16 months of stalemate on the committee.

In a sharp break with the current chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the Oregon Democrat said at a CQ Roll Call forum that an agreement to steer some of the royalties from offshore energy production to coastal states could be an element of “transformative” energy legislation in the next Congress that balances job creation with environmental protection.

Wyden said he and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are committed to “checking the gridlock at the door” so they can work to modernize domestic energy policy. The last major update to the country’s energy laws was in 2007, well before the shale gas revolution that unlocked a vast amount of previously unrecoverable domestic resources.

“Addressing those issues out of the gate seem to me ideal opportunities for bringing Democrats and Republicans together,” he said.

Work by the committee — long a model of bipartisan cooperation — ground to a halt in July 2011, when a fight over revenue sharing scuttled an offshore drilling safety bill. Bingaman opposes revenue sharing, arguing royalties from oil and gas production in federal waters belong to the entire nation. The impasse killed the drilling safety bill and doomed the rest of the panel’s energy agenda, including Bingaman’s efforts to write a clean-energy mandate for utilities.

Wyden said revenue sharing could be a component of a fresh approach to energy policy that engages state and local governments and promotes development of traditional fossil fuels and new forms of renewable energy. He said the challenge is to get beyond the conflict between industry and environmentalists and design an energy policy that works for both sides.

“I believe there is an opportunity for a third path,” Wyden said.

Striking a balance that protects the environment while growing the economy will be needed to prevent resource-dependent communities from becoming “ghost towns,” Wyden said.

Murkowski said a focus on the environment could help her party reach out to young voters, who overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama’s re-election last week.

“We need to show a level of environmental responsibility that is in conjunction with where young people are coming from,” she said.

Until Bingaman’s opposition to revenue sharing collided with support for the idea by Murkowski and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., the Energy Committee had a long-standing reputation for cooperative bipartisanship. Wyden said he hopes to find a formula to restore that.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over energy matters said he wants to reach out to Senate colleagues to find areas of consensus.

Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., said at the CQ Roll Call event that he will meet with Wyden and Murkowski to identify legislation that could be fast-tracked in both chambers. Whitfield identified permitting processes, grid reliability and pipeline infrastructure issues as areas for potential agreement.

“I would think there would be a lot of areas of common ground,” Whitfield told reporters. “We have one of the very significant issues out there.”

Whitfield even invited senators from both parties to attend the subcommittee forums he started holding earlier this year on potential revisions to the Clean Air Act.

The subcommittee’s Democrats have avoided the sessions, which they see as part of a broader House GOP campaign to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory agenda.

But Whitfield insisted the sessions have identified changes that could make the law work better. For example, he said, state and local air quality administrators suggested that ambient air quality standards, which are updated every five years, could be revised less frequently.

“We’re not doing this with any predetermined goal,” he said. “But simply, I view these as informational to let people who deal with this on a regular basis — what are their concerns, what issues do they have?”

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