At a panel yesterday morning hosted by National Journal, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill (D) made some comments about Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal that are strikingly off-message. Or are they?

The panel was focused on Obama’s first 100 days. McCaskill — a key Senate ally of Obama’s and the first female Senator to endorse him in the primary — said that Obama has to focus on the economy, and that may mean delaying cap-and-trade. Reports ABC News:

"I think a delay may be necessary," she continued. "Yes, we’ve got to do something. Yes, we have to move forward. But we can’t kill the business climate at the same time. I’m from a state where most of the people who turn on the lights in the state get it from utility companies that depend on coal. And the cost of switching all that to clean coal technology or to alternative sources is going to be borne by them — by regular folks who are trying to figure out how to pay their mortgages right now."

Now, substantively this is just daft, which I’ll address in a moment. But more interestingly, why on earth is a key Obama ally saying this in public, at this particular moment?

McCaskill goes to great lengths to aver that it is only her opinion: "Let me speak for me here because I think this is very dangerous. I would like to keep my relationship with Barack at this point. Let me speak for me." And it’s not like her opposition to cap-and-trade is new; she was one of the Senators to sign a letter to Boxer and Reid last year saying she wouldn’t have voted for Lieberman-Warner.

If her opposition is already known, why say it at all? Perhaps I’m paranoid, but it strikes me as somewhat implausible that she’s completely freelancing. I certainly hope this isn’t a trial balloon from Obama. If so, a nice public rebuke of McCaskill from enviro groups might be in order.

Now, on the substance:

1. If you think cap-and-trade will "kill the business climate," when will you favor it? Even if you find the mythical "moderate middle" McCaskill claims to be looking for, when will you be willing to face your voters and say, "I voted for a measure that will harm the economy, but thanks to my efforts it will harm the economy somewhat less"? If people think of carbon legislation as an economy killer, they are being disingenuous when they say this particular moment, or this particular bill, is the problem. They should just be upfront about the fact that they oppose carbon legislation altogether.

2. Obama has said over and over again that auction revenue is going to be put toward assisting those hit hardest by carbon pricing. The "regular folks" McCaskill says she’s concerned about are going to be compensated — that’s been made explicit by Obama, more than once. They were explicitly compensated in the Lieberman-Warner bill. You might even worry that it’s not regular folks McCaskill is defending here. You might worry that it’s fossil fuel-intensive corporations she’s defending instead.

3. Of course you think cap-and-trade will be wildly expensive if you view it as a process of forcing utilities to shift from coal to "clean coal." For one thing, clean coal doesn’t exist yet. And when it does, 10 or 15 years from now, it’s going to be a great deal more expensive than dirty coal.

But of course Missouri, like all states, has other options. First and foremost is efficiency — Missouri is 45th on the scorecard of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, though it’s recently turned its attention in that direction a little more. The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance says:

Implementing diverse energy efficiency programs also has a positive impact on the economy. Missouri families and businesses could realize $175 million in direct natural gas bill savings and $457 million in direct electricity savings over the next five years as a result of energy efficiency programs. Energy efficiency also puts downward pressure on natural gas prices, and consumers in Missouri could see an additional $230 million in savings by 2011. Energy efficiency also has the potential to create more than 30,000 new jobs and $750 million in net employee compensation in the Midwest over the next five years.

According to a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Missouri could supply 85 percent of its own power needs from wind alone, and another 25 percent from rooftop solar (yes, that adds up to more than 100 percent). It also has extensive biomass resources and, as a manufacturing state, enormous combined heat and power (CHP) potential. All these options, particularly efficiency, are cheaper than "clean coal."

Even if McCaskill is clueless about carbon and clean-energy policy, again: what’s going on with the politics here? Is there more to this than meets the eye?