Senator pressured to support renewable energy standards

By Susan Montoya Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE — The message seems simple, and it’s hard to miss when plastered on a large yellow billboard along one of New Mexico’s busiest interstates.

“Senator Domenici: Don’t Dim Our Future! Support Renewable Energy.”

The billboard — along with radio ads, bumper stickers and yard signs — is part of a campaign by the Sierra Club to grab the attention of Republican Pete Domenici and President Bush when they visit Albuquerque on Monday for a fundraising event.

“I think the major thing is we want to give folks a chance to let Senator Domenici know and let President Bush know that renewable energy is really good for New Mexico,” said Carol Oldham, a regional representative with the national environmental group.

You won’t get any arguments from the senator or his staff.

“Who’s against renewable energy? Noboby is,” says Matt Letourneau, a former Domenici staffer and communications director for the Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But the matter becomes more complicated when lawmakers try to establish renewable energy standards that work for every state, Letourneau says.

At issue is a renewable fuels proposal that Domenici blocked during a debate earlier this summer. The provision — introduced by fellow Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico — would have required power companies to increase the use of wind, turbines, solar panels, biomass and other renewable sources to produce at least 15 percent of their electricity by 2020.

Letourneau said Domenici, as the committee’s ranking member, opposed the measure on behalf of several senators from the Southeast who were concerned that their states would not be able to meet the standards because of the lack of wind and solar resources and that utilities would likely pass on the cost of fines to consumers.

Domenici had offered what he called a clean portfolio standard, which would have allowed utilities to use nuclear, hydropower, fuel cells and other sources in addition to wind and solar to reach a 20 percent standard. That measure was tabled.

“The goal is trying to reduce carbon emissions,” Letourneau says, “but if we come up with an approach that not every state can participate in and some are just paying fines because they can’t meet the standards, then carbon emissions aren’t going to be reduced.”

House and Senate negotiators are expected to take up the energy bill, including a renewable electricity standard passed by the House, when they return in the fall. Both Domenici and Bingaman will be part of the talks.

Bingaman has said a federal renewable standard is needed to stimulate expansion of fuel sources other than coal and natural gas.

Despite Domenici’s stance on the matter, the Sierra Club hopes he will have a change of heart during the negotiations.

Oldham said it’s difficult for her to understand the senator’s opposition given the potential benefits for New Mexico. She points to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists that shows 3,000 new jobs in the state would be possible and residents could save nearly $400 million in reduced energy costs by 2020.

“We’re a poor state without a whole lot of jobs,” she said. “We really need this.”

Letourneau said around 31 states already have some kind of renewable energy standard. In New Mexico, a law that took effect this year requires 15 percent from renewable sources by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.