Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is chairman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee and a key player on energy issues. In June, his committee voted to approve S. 1462, the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, an energy bill that may or may not be combined with a climate bill from Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Environment & Public Works Committee (and possibly an allowance-allocation bill from Sen. Max Baucus’s Finance Committee) into a comprehensive bill to match the House’s.

Sen. Bingaman was kind enough to answer a few of our questions. Transcript and comments beneath:

Here’s the transcript, with my comments interspersed.

I’m Jeff Bingaman. I’m the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and I’m glad to take questions from Grist.org about climate change issues.

Q: Do you support splitting the comprehensive House bill by passing an energy bill and postponing cap-and-trade for later?

A: Well I favor passing energy legislation, and of course we reported a significant energy bill out of our committee earlier this year. I hope we can bring that up and proceed with it. I also support dealing with greenhouse gas emissions more directly through a cap and trade system. That legislation has not yet come out of committee. It will be up to the majority leader whether we combine those two, or do them separately, and I’m not really in a position to make that decision. But, I would like to see us do both, and do both this year if possible. If we’re not able to do both, I’d like to see us do all that we can do this year.

I asked this question because the idea has been floated a few times — by a group of conservative Democrats (Lincoln of Ark., Nelson of Neb., Conrad and Dorgan of N.D.) and more recently by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Reid still says he wants to do a big bill, but he has pointedly refrained from closing off the option of splitting it. Sen. Bingaman doesn’t exactly decry the option either; he supports doing “all that we can.” Don’t be surprised if the idea of passing an energy bill as a next-best substitute for a comprehensive bill gains steam over the next month or so; if that happens, the chances of a climate bill in Obama’s first term all but evaporate.

Q: Are you in favor of a climate bill that includes a “price collar” with upper and lower carbon price limits?

A: Well, one of the key issues that we’re dealing with in this debate about climate change, and cap and trade more particularly, is whether or not there ought to be provisions in the law–if we’re able to enact a law–that would put an upper limit on the price of allowances and perhaps put a lower limit as well. I believe, myself, that it would make sense to have both. I know that that’s being considered by the chairman of the Environment Committee at this time, and I hope that that’s what the committee decides to do, and the chairman decides to do. I think that otherwise you have the risk of very substantial volatility in markets for allowances. And, of course, that adversely affects ratepayers and the economy more generally.

Obviously there’s only so much you can say in a minute, but an extremely important issue is being elided here. In the past, Sen. Bingaman has supported a so-called “safety valve.” (He included one in the climate bill he co-sponsored in 2007.) Under that policy, a hard ceiling would be set on allowance prices under a cap-and-trade program; in effect, when the price hit the ceiling the market would be flooded with unlimited credits. Environmentalists are dead set against the idea, because it compromises the environmental integrity of the program (the cap is a cap in name only) and retards the incentive to invest in low-carbon alternatives.

The “price collar” Boxer will include in her bill is different. (“It is not an off-ramp, and she does not support a safety valve,” said a Boxer aide.) It adds two things to a conventional price ceiling. First it also sets a price floor, so allowance value never plunges to nothing (in the face of, say, a massive recession that dampens demand). But more importantly, if the price hits the ceiling, what’s introduced to the market are not new allowances but allowances borrowed from future years. That way, the environmental integrity of the cap is preserved.

It’s a crucial distinction, but since Bingaman isn’t writing the climate bill this year, I wish I’d asked him about Murkowski’s shenanigans instead.

Q: Can the climate bill gain the support of conservative Democrats without more funding for nuclear and coal power?

A: Frankly I don’t believe that gaining support of conservative Democrats depends upon putting more money into nuclear and coal power. I do think that we’ve already enacted bills that try to encourage construction of initial nuclear power plants, and I support that. We have also put in law various provisions to try to deal with the emission problems of coal-fired power plants primarily by funding efforts, large demonstration projects for carbon capture and storage. Those are very important to the future of coal as an energy source, but I think what’s really needed to get conservative Democrats supporting cap and trade legislation is to be able to put forward a proposal that people are confident will work and that people are confident will not impose an undue burden on rate payers or on our overall economy. And that’s some persuading that still has to go on before we’ll have the votes I believe to go ahead and enact this legislation.

I asked this question because Joe Lieberman, long seen as a centrist on climate policy, “believes that including greater funding for coal and nuclear energy could make the bill more attractive to Republicans and conservative Democrats” and his staff “has been meeting quietly with staffers for well over than a dozen senators on both sides of the aisle to draft provisions that would increase funding for coal and nuclear power plants.” There is certainly plenty of persuading left to do, but in these situations persuading is often enhanced by prizes for constituents.

I thank Grist.org for inviting me to answer these questions. If you have other questions, please contact us on the committee’s website: energy.senate.gov, or my personal website which is bingaman.senate.gov.

Our thanks to Sen. Bingaman for taking the time. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him as the Senate climate drama unfolds.