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Senate to take up modest energy bill; oil-spill research included

In addition to a host of provisions tied to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a pared-down energy bill expected to hit the Senate this week would bolster oil-spill research and set up a monitoring programme for the Gulf of Mexico. Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives last week.

The bill also contains a range of energy measures, including tax breaks to convert heavy vehicles to natural gas and rebates to encourage home improvements that boost energy efficiency. Other provisions require the Energy Department to develop a plan to promote electric vehicles and contract with the National Academy of Sciences on a related study.

But the bill is most notable for what it does not include. In addition to setting aside language on global warming, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada left out a requirement that electric utilities boost renewable electricity production that many saw as a potential fall-back measure. The goal is apparently to jettison controversial language in an effort to get something out the door before senators leave town for the August recess next week.

Once the debate begins, Senators will go about their business with amendments that could target just about anything, from renewable energy to climate to clean coal. And one feature of the rules governing this bicameral legislature is that the majority party can always include provisions that were passed by the House in the final legislation – even if those provisions were never approved by the Senate. And since the House passed climate legislation last year, that technically means that this modest bill might yet roar.

Most consider climate legislation an extreme long-shot this year, but the White House pointedly raised this possibility on Wednesday. Lawmakers would still need to broker some kind of a compromise that can garner 60 out of 100 votes in the Senate, but if they succeed that language could be inserted into the process when the House and Senate go to negotiate the differences between their bills this fall.

And as long as we are talking long shots, there is always the post-election Christmas-Eve Hail-Mary pass in which a lame-duck Congress attempts to push through massive legislation just hours before many of its members are kicked out of office. Highly controversial, to be sure, but there are those who think the Democrats might be willing to do it if they take a serious hit during the November elections. And as Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, points out in the Huffington Post, it’s been done before.

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