Beltway observers of all stripes owe Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) a debt of gratitude. In 2006, after 20 years in the House of Representatives, he ran for Maryland’s newly vacant Senate seat against then-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Steele’s defeat put him on a trajectory to become chair of the Republican National Committee, where he has provided the political world with an unending stream of malapropisms and unintentional hilarities.

Meanwhile, Cardin — who boasts close to a perfect 100 score from the League of Conservation Voters — has become a key player on green issues in the Senate. He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions (transcript at bottom of post):

Sen. Cardin doesn’t mention it specifically, but he is one of the original sponsors of CLEAN-TEA (the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act), which would set aside 10% of the revenue from any cap-and-trade program for green transportation projects. The provision was dropped from the House bill; it needs five more sponsors on the Environment and Public Works Committee to get voted through to the Senate floor. Neither Obama nor Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have come out in support of the provision yet, but they oughtta.

Enviros will be heartened to hear that Cardin is on board with preserving the EPA’s Clean Air Act authority over greenhouse gases. Rumor has it Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and other Dems on the Environment and Public Works Committee are pushing to include this in the climate bill.

Finally, Cardin doesn’t mention this specifically either, but he is an original sponsor of S. 696, the Appalachia Restoration Act, which would define the word “fill” to prevent mountaintop-removal mining operations from dumping waste and rubble in mountain streams. He was one of the earliest members of Congress to speak out clearly against the barbaric practice of MTR; progress on the issue seems to be picking up steam.

Big thanks to Sen. Cardin for taking the time to answer our questions. With any luck, this won’t be the last time.

Here’s the transcript:

Introduction: I’m glad to be here today to answer questions from Grist, a great website covering environmental news.

Q: Are there any alternative ways of boosting public transit in the climate bill?

A: The climate bill gives us an excellent opportunity to increase public transportation. It’s critically important to reduce greenhouse gases, to use less oil and fuel, and to provide better services to the people of our community, make their lives a lot easier. Now, we’re very pleased about the House passing the climate change bill. It’s an important bill; it establishes the framework to bring down greenhouse gases. But I must tell you, I think we could do much better on public transportation. And I’m looking forward, in the Senate, to providing more dedicated revenue sources to increase our commitment to improve public transportation in our nation. I think we can really get the job done that will help our communities as far as life is concerned, traffic is concerned, also, save us oil and energy and bring down greenhouse gases.

Q: Is there a push in Congress to preserve the EPA’s new-source-review authority?

A: It’s a very high priority that we preserve the new authority of EPA to regulate, especially under the Clean Air Act. We want to make sure that those authorities remain. Now, we are concerned about the House bill. The House bill is an important bill, and it moves us forward on global climate change, but we don’t think we should take away from EPA’s ability to use authority within the Clean Air Act, to make the type of progress necessary to bring down greenhouse gases. Bottom line is, we want it to be a partnership between what Congress will give this administration, the policies that we establish, working with the EPA to make the type of changes necessary to affect climate change in this country.

Q: What’s the status of the Appalachian Restoration Act? Is there any appetite in the Senate for addressing mountaintop removal?

A: Mountaintop removal for coal is just devastating. There is no justification for mountaintop mining. The coal industry is important, but getting coal by that technique destroys our rivers. It destroys our environment. It’s not fair to the people of that community. Their rivers are being destroyed, and it’s just a horrible process. I’m pleased that we have bipartisan support to move legislation. Now, the EPA has already taken some steps. They’re carefully reviewing each permit. I give the EPA a great deal of credit for taking that extra time, but they need the authority from Congress that prohibits this type of mining in our country. I do think there is support for it, and I’m hopeful that this Congress will move forward to an act of meaningful help for the EPA, in keeping our rivers clean and helping the environment.

Conclusion: I really want to thank Grist for giving me this opportunity to answer some of your environmental questions. I hope that we can continue this dialogue. Please feel free to go to my website, which is cardin.senate.gov, where we can help you with more information. This is an important subject. It deserves great debate. We appreciate you being part of it.