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Senator Could Play a Smarter Hand on Energy

Jeff Bingaman is a personable, hard-working and very smart senator. But the New Mexico Democrat doesn’t appear to be much of a poker player.

Bingaman is now helping Senate Republicans and the energy industry advance one of their top goals: a bill to expand drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. He’s doing so even though Republicans are blocking the energy priorities of Bingaman and most other Democrats: more focus on conservation and renewable energy.

By helping Republicans pursue their agenda while the GOP suppresses Democratic preferences, Bingaman isn’t only making a bad bargain -- he’s making it more difficult for the nation to craft a comprehensive plan to reduce our excessive dependence on foreign oil.

The key to greater energy independence isn’t so much a scientific breakthrough as a political accommodation between the forces supporting more domestic production and those focused on greater conservation. And that won’t come without the kind of hardball bargaining so far missing from the legislative maneuvering over the Florida drilling plan.

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The debate on this issue is important partly because it could set the model for what are likely to be a series of confrontations over offshore drilling.

Much of the outer continental shelf has been off-limits for decades. In 1981, James G. Watt, President Reagan’s chain saw of an Interior secretary, proposed to sprout oil rigs across 1 billion acres offshore; Congress, fearing oil spills and other environmental damage, blocked him by banning leasing off most of the nation’s coastline.

Congress has renewed that moratorium every year since, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton reinforced it with anti-drilling directives that extend through 2012. Call it Watt’s bequest to the environmental movement.

But those shields are cracking. With energy prices high and concern about energy independence higher, proposals are proliferating in Congress to reopen the outer continental shelf to drilling for natural gas or to allow states to opt out of the moratorium. Last month, the Bush administration released a draft five-year plan that envisioned substantial offshore development in the Gulf Coast, the Mid-Atlantic and off Alaska.

The next skirmish in this escalating battle is the legislation on Florida drilling, sponsored by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with support from Bingaman.

The bill would open a large swath of the gulf south of Pensacola and west of Tampa. Although the area isn’t covered by the congressional moratorium, environmentalists and Florida’s tourism industry have long opposed drilling there. Both of the state’s U.S. senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, are also resisting.

The administration’s new plan envisions leasing about 2 million acres in the area over the next five years. But Domenici’s bill would require the Interior Department within the next year to lease as much as 3.6 million acres, including areas within 100 miles of the Florida coastline.

Martinez and Nelson want to limit the gulf drilling to no more than 1.3 million acres and bar it within 150 miles of the coastline, while extending the moratorium for the rest of the outer continental shelf through 2020. But Domenici’s approach recently roared through his Energy Committee on a 16-5 vote.

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Even opponents concede Domenici’s bill probably has majority support in the Senate. But it’s uncertain that he could muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster by Nelson, who has threatened one. And that should provide critics leverage to negotiate.

Environmentalists want to preserve the moratorium on almost all offshore development. That’s understandable: It’s their job to be purists. But given the concern about foreign oil, the Republican push for greater domestic production, and the substantial resources potentially available offshore, more drilling seems inevitable.

Rather than trying to block all offshore leasing, opponents should insist that more drilling occur only as part of a comprehensive energy plan. One element of such a plan would be tight environmental protections and careful limits on the areas opened for lease. Equally important would be commitments from drilling advocates to couple any new production with serious measures to reduce demand.

That’s where Bingaman has played such a questionable hand. Last year, White House officials and congressional Republicans agreed to strip from the final version of an energy bill a measure that Bingaman had steered through the Senate requiring utilities to generate 10% of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. Last week, the Senate, on a nearly party line vote, rejected a Bingaman proposal to pump $5.3 billion more into federal spending on conservation and renewable energy. Domenici and every Energy Committee Republican voted against Bingaman.

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And yet, on the Florida bill, Bingaman is providing critical bipartisan cover for the same GOP legislators who derailed his ideas.

When asked why he and other Democrats should accept more Florida drilling while their own proposals languish, Bingaman seemed surprised.

“I think you make progress where you can in this process,” he said. “I have no problem supporting this as a free-standing provision.”

The problem is that this Congress isn’t likely to pass any “free-standing provision” promoting conservation, efficiency or alternative energy. Those priorities, essential to any long-term energy strategy, can advance only if Republicans see them as the price of increasing domestic energy production.

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Greater offshore drilling would make sense in a grand bargain on energy that includes tougher fuel economy standards for vehicles and much greater support for renewable energy. But that bargain will never come if Democrats such as Bingaman give Republicans and the energy industry what they want without demanding anything in return.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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