Environmental groups are looking to strengthen the renewable energy standard in Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) energy bill (Pic by Pete Marovich/ZUMApress.com)

With the fate of a scaled-back cap on greenhouse gas emissions uncertain, environmental groups are scrambling to find a way to maintain a bill that would still achieve substantial cuts in global warming pollution. Now they have refocused their attention on strengthening a renewable energy standard, which would require a percentage of the country’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Environmental groups have participated in a series of meetings in recent weeks to press Senate staff to strengthen the renewable energy standard (RES) included in the energy bill passed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. The RES in the bill would require that 15 percent of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources, a standard most environmentalists think is far too weak.

Environmental advocates have long seen an RES as essential to jump-starting the renewable energy sector. While an RES would result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, environmentalists say a comprehensive energy and climate bill, with a cap on carbon, is required to reduce emissions enough to stave off catastrophic climate change. “An RES was never intended to be a carbon reduction measure,” says Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director at the Union for Concerned Scientists. “Its intent was always to increase renewable energy [capacity].”

So as they advocate a stronger RES, environmental groups continue to push for a utility-sector cap on emissions, holding a series of meetings in recent days and weeks with representatives of key electric utilities. It remains to be seen whether environmental and utility groups can find middle ground on the proposal, a necessary step, sources on and off the Hill say, to ensure passage of such a provision. The utilities have pushed for an exemption from Environmental Protection Agency regulation in exchange for supporting a carbon cap on their companies — a compromise environmental groups are unlikely to accept. If a deal on a cap proves impossible, environmental groups see an RES as the next best thing.

Environmentalists are lobbying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to include an RES that would require 25 percent of the country’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025 in the energy bill he is expected to bring to the floor the week of July 26. A coalition of environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council — sent a letter to Reid Wednesday calling for a 10 percent RES by 2013 and a 25 percent RES by 2025.

“We commend the Energy & Natural Resources Committee for including a national renewable electricity standard in the American Clean Energy Leadership Act,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, the provision as drafted would fail to drive a significant expansion of renewable energy. Studies show that the amount of renewable energy development resulting from the renewable energy requirement in ACELA could be lower than expected growth in development as a result of existing state policies and federal incentives.”

If the Reid bill includes Bingman’s proposal, a number of lawmakers who have called for a stronger RES will likely seek to offer amendments to the bill. But some sources say that given the tight time frame before the August recess, Reid could restrict amendments to the legislation, leaving lawmakers with little time to strengthen an RES on the floor. Reid’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Wentworth, of the Union for Concerned Scientists, says Bingaman and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) are planning to offer an amendment on the floor that would raise the RES to 20 percent. While that’s below the target that UCS and other environmental groups are calling for, Marchant acknowledges that a 25 percent RES may not be able to get 60 votes in the Senate.

Bill Wicker, Bingaman’s spokesperson, said Thursday that the senator would like to see the RES “strengthened and improved” in the final version of the bill. Wicker added that he does not believe the energy bill being cobbled together by Reid, based on a number of energy and climate proposals, has been written yet.

Once that bill is made available, “then we’ll all then know what the RES figure is going to be,” Wicker said, adding that Bingaman would support the highest RES that can gain enough support for passage. Dorgan’s spokesperson, Barry Piatt, confirms that the senator is planning to offer an RES amendment.

And environmentalists are touting a proposal introduced last year by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that would implement a 25 percent RES. Udall’s spokesperson confirmed that the senator is trying to get the 25 percent RES included in Reid’s legislative package. With the potential for protracted floor debate on the bill, lawmakers are hoping to get a stronger RES in the bill before it hits the floor.

Meanwhile, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) introduced a bill this week that also includes a 25 percent RES. But environmentalists are hesitant to support the bill because it includes an extension of tax credits for ethanol and incentives for biofuels, though one environmentalist source acknowledges that such provisions could help gain Republican support for the proposal.

An aide in Klobuchar’s office says the goal is to include parts of the bill in the package Reid’s staff is writing or as an amendment on the floor. The aide says Klobuchar is meeting with a number of senators to try to build support for the legislation, but there are currently no other co-sponsors.

But Klobuchar and Johnson have the support of a number of powerful industry trade associations, including the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry’s trade group, and the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry. A source with Growth Energy, another ethanol trade group that has endorsed the proposal, says a utility-only bill is “the death knell; it’s not going to go anywhere.”

A stronger RES allows environmentalists to claim victory on a climate proposal. Democrats “want to be able to say to the environmental community, ‘We didn’t get everything, but we got something through,’” the ethanol industry source says. “They can come out at the end of the day and say it’s jobs, it’s some climate, but not the type of climate that will make the Republicans choke.” While environmentalists aren’t sold on the Klobuchar-Johnson bill, the ethanol industry source says that incentives for ethanol could win support from key Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

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