Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) won his 2008 race against 40-year Republican incumbent Gordon Smith in a squeaker, with a margin of just 3%. Despite the narrow win, Merkley has come out swinging on climate and energy issues, securing an appointment to the Environment & Public Works Committee, sponsoring or co-sponsoring a series of clean energy bills and amendments, and generally staking out — with compatriot Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — the left edge of the climate bill debate. (Grist interviewed Merkley last July.)

Sen. Merkley was kind enough to answer a couple of questions from Grist about the upcoming Senate battle over the climate bill:

Here’s the transcript:

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Introduction: Greetings! I want to take just a few minutes to answer some questions from David Roberts from Grist. Now, David has some questions about our upcoming climate legislation.

Q: The first is: What are the most important ways to strengthen the climate bill that came out of the House?

A: Well, the first key thing is to strengthen the pollution-reduction target. We need to have at least a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Second is, we really need to focus on reducing the most polluting technologies, such as the current use of dirty coal technology. Third, we need to improve the integrity of our offsets. And fourth, we need to reduce the temptations to have speculation enter in to the trading regime. So those are all ways that we need to strengthen the legislation from the House.

Q: And the second question from David is: Is there any policy or provision in the climate bill that can serve as a rallying point for progressive organizing and advocacy?

A: Certainly I think one key thing that I would encourage folks to focus on is renewable energy standard. Because this is really about substituting green renewable energy, wind, and wave, and solar and geothermal, for the carbon-based energy that we are currently using. Right now, we are bringing a lot of fossil energy out of the ground. We’re burning it, it creates carbon dioxide; we break that through these renewable energies. Having a very strong standard, and implementing it as quickly as possible, would be a huge rallying point that would create not only a lot of clean energy, but a tremendous number of clean energy jobs which would be great for recovering our economy, and strengthening the financial foundation of our families.

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Conclusion: So I want to thank David for his questions, and thank all of you for caring so much about the stewardship of our planet, about the reduction of our dependence on foreign oil, and about creating a strong clean economy. Thank you.


A few notes on items Sen. Merkley mentioned:

As far as raising the 2020 targets: In addition to Merkley, several senators on the Environment & Public Works Committee have called for raising the 2020 targets from 17% to 20% (below 2005 levels), including Whitehouse, Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). This will be a heavy lift on the Senate floor, where many coal-state Dems are leery even of the weak targets in the House’s Waxman-Markey bill.

Note the second item on his list: reducing the use of dirty coal. This seems crushingly obvious, but you almost never hear a member of Congress explicitly calling out coal as a climate culprit. The entire dance of the bill through Congress thus far has been about how to help coal and insure its future. It’s nice to hear someone acknowledge the elephant in the room.

On the third item — insuring the integrity of offsets — we need to hear more. This is a contentious subject among environmentalists. Just last week Friends of the Earth released a report calling offsets a “dangerous distraction.” Since offsets are currently playing an important cost-containment role in the bill, the number available is unlikely to decrease. It may increase. Strict integrity controls will be crucial. There are actually some great measures in Waxman-Markey to regulate offsets, but the issue could always stand more scrutiny.

On the fourth item — worries about speculation in carbon markets — readers know I’m with Kevin Drum (i.e., skeptical). I just don’t think it’s very high on the list of worries. But of course responsible regulation of markets is always good, and the measures proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) seem solid. Boxer has said that she’ll include them in her bill.

As for the answer to the second question, Merkley is dead on. One thing progressives have lacked in the climate fight is something analogous to the public option in the health care debate — a single rallying point around which progressives can organize and advocate. Without those bright lines, it’s incredibly hard to activate people. I’ve had debates with various folks about what the rallying point should be on the climate bill, but I’ve always believed the best place to focus is the renewable energy standard (RES). The public understands clean energy, and they support it in overwhelming numbers. The RES was weakened in the House energy committee but could be strengthened in the Senate — this is a winnable fight, on the right side of public opinion.

Anyway, many thanks to Sen. Merkley for answering our questions. We hope this will be an ongoing dialogue.