WASHINGTON — Congress probably won’t impose a carbon tax on fossil fuel consumption as a way of raising revenue to shrink the deficit, Sen. Ron Wyden said Thursday.
“Whether you are for a carbon tax or against it, you’d have to say this is going to be a big lift politically,” the Oregon Democrat said during a panel discussion on America’s energy future.
Implementing a carbon tax had been briefly discussed this week in Washington as an alternative to raising tax rates to deal with the looming fiscal crisis, but as Wyden’s comment indicated, it never garnered the political support necessary to become a viable option.
Wyden will officially become the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January, replacing retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Together with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee’s ranking member, he discussed the committee’s upcoming agenda at the event hosted by CQ Roll Call.
As longtime friends and colleagues who visited each other’s states recently, Wyden and Murkowski hope to set a tone of civility and productivity, and “check gridlock at the door,” as Wyden put it.
“I think everybody in this room would agree that there is a pent-up demand when it comes to moving energy issues through the Congress,” Murkowski said.
The last big effort in Congress to modernize America’s energy policy was in 2007, before the economy tanked and advances in drilling led to a boom in natural gas, Wyden said.
“We feel in my part of the world that a number of renewables, particularly geothermal, hydropower and biomass, have really gotten short shrift,” he said.
Asked whether Republicans need to modify their message on climate change and environmental protection to court younger voters who largely went for Democrats in this year’s election, Murkowski warned that Republicans can’t simply pander for votes but need to offer a holistic approach based on governing with good ideas.
“We need to show a level of environmental responsibility that’s in conjunction with where young people are coming from,” she said.
Wyden said politicians in both parties had seen the same exit polls, but cautioned against assuming that voters are so easy to predict when it comes to energy, the environment and natural resources.
In rural counties he’s visited throughout Oregon, working class families are very concerned about protecting the quality of the land, air and water so that they can continue to hunt and fish in their spare time, he said.
“In Oregon, we’ve got green in our chromosomes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 8 or 80, you care about the quality of life,” he said.
Wyden and Murkowski didn’t offer many specifics — Murkowski is working on a comprehensive energy plan, but it probably won’t be ready until after Jan. 1, she said. She pledged to work together to find common ground and develop legislation that both Democrats and Republicans could support.
One major challenge will be creating economic development opportunities for resource dependent communities, Wyden said. From timber in Oregon to wind and waves in coastal New England, communities need to figure out ways to use federal holdings responsibly, or else they will turn into ghost towns, he said.
Wyden plans on using multiple perspectives to shape federal policy, including state and local stakeholders, he said.
“We may be able to knit together a national coalition to come up with a fresh approach,” he said.
Wyden cited Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, as an example of someone who shares this inclusive, problem-solving outlook. Walden’s elevation to a leadership position in the House (as the newly elected chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee) offers another avenue to work across the aisle to forge a way forward, he said.
“Voters are not going to tolerate another two years of constant (partisan) food-fights and bickering,” Wyden said. If that’s what they see, “they will be very hard on people who are on the ballot in 2014.”