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Last week the Senate took up a sweeping climate change bill in what many hoped would be a historic debate. But it ended up fizzling quickly, and now any efforts at comprehensive global warming legislation will likely be shelved until next year.

Progress on the legislation (S 3036) was thwarted by partisan sniping and procedural maneuvers.

Still, there was evidence of widening bipartisan consensus on key points of energy proposals that are likely to resurface in the new administration.

The debate over the climate change bill demonstrated that most Republicans aren't yet ready to vote for a bill that would fundamentally transform the economy by putting a price on fossil fuel emissions. But last week's debate saw even diehard oil- and coal-state Republicans publicly acknowledging the reality of climate change and the need to transition to a low-carbon economy. It also highlighted a shift that is already taking place in Congress, as more Republicans support major incentives for low-carbon and renewable-energy technologies.

"It wasn't that long ago that if you were a Republican, you were looked at strangely if you talked about conservation, about these energy alternatives," said Ryan Loskarn, communications director for the Senate Republican Conference. "In the past, Republicans have been vocal mainly on more drilling. But there's been a perceptible shift in the mood of the party."

In speech after speech, GOP lawmakers called for more funding and research into solar, wind and geothermal power; plug-in hybrid cars; and carbon sequestration. While some Republicans have in the past voted for renewable-power incentives that could help their home-state industries, now party leaders are getting out in front of the issue and seeking to define it as their own.

New World Order

As the climate change debate kicked off last week, the heads of the Senate Republican Conference, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Cornyn of Texas, hosted a forum on the need for what Alexander likes to tout as a "new Manhattan Project": a policy centered on research and development of a raft of low-carbon energy initiatives, from plug-in cars to green buildings.

"We need a crash program for carbon recapture and solar. We stand ready for an agenda for more clean energy, and we have the moment to marshal bipartisan support on this," Alexander said.

He said he'd like to see the heads of the Senate Energy Committee, Jeff Bingaman , D-N.M., and Pete V. Domenici , R-N.M., work with the National Academy of Sciences to determine the top alternative energy priorities, "and then say, 'What should we do in Congress to put that on the fastest track possible?' "

Shift in GOP Sentiment

To be sure, this doesn't mean Republicans are abandoning what has long been the center of their energy policy: increasing domestic oil drilling. As passionate as the newfound GOP support for renewables may be, even an advocate such as Alexander says the starting point has to be "exploring for more oil and gas. When you talk about a new Manhattan Project, you need to start with more oil drilling."

And Cornyn, who hails from the nation's chief oil state, backs initiatives that would seek to boost solar and wind power, but dismisses ideas that do not also include drilling as part of the solution.


"There's a large consensus of people who think we need to be good stewards of the environment. We all realize we can't live on a petroleum-based economy indefinitely," Cornyn said. "But the problem with our friends in the Democratic majority is that they do not believe in producing more energy as a solution."

Still, Democrats see promise in the new Republican renewables movement. "There's greater support on the Republican side for conservation and alternative energy," Bingaman said. "We are hoping to be able to move ahead in that area. I think the prospects are much better on those issues than they have been."

In the House, Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said that skyrocketing gasoline and utility prices are the "game-changers."

"The lines that were drawn clearly about what would or would not be supported by Democrats and Republicans in the 2005 energy bill — those are changing. Those old battle lines aren't necessarily true anymore," he said.

 

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