WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is gearing up for an end-of-session, election-year showdown over energy policy that may put him at odds with several members of his party who are leading the charge on an increasingly popular bipartisan reform proposal.
As the leader of the newly expanded "gas gang" of lawmakers, the efforts of fellow Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia to reach across the aisle have put McConnell in an awkward position. Republicans had hoped to continue hammering Democrats throughout the election season for blocking much needed energy reform.
In the Senate, McConnell has led the charge on that front, roundly criticizing Democrats for pre-empting critical votes on drilling.
Republican members of the gas gang have faced tough criticism in conservative circles and on talk radio. The tension was evident during an energy summit on Capitol Hill on Friday -- an event that included dozens of senators and top energy industry experts.
During his opening remarks, McConnell steered clear of acknowledging the gas gang's efforts and stuck to addressing specific state concerns.
"The seriousness of this problem -- and the need to do something about it soon -- was brought home to me in an especially vivid way during my time at home in Kentucky over the August break," McConnell said. "In dozens of public events, I spoke to commuters, farmers and owners of small and large businesses whose lives have been disrupted, in some cases tragically so, by the high cost of gas."
McConnell then left to take care of other Senate business.
By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., enthused about North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad's efforts in helping head up the gas gang's bipartisan efforts.
Kentucky's major energy source, coal, figured prominently during the day's discussions.
Experts testified that the nation is lagging woefully behind in developing ways to effectively capture carbon emissions and store them underground where they can't trap heat in the atmosphere.
"The current model for electricity is broken," said Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google. "We need to fix this model. We need to put a price on carbon to significantly decrease CO2."
Lexington has the country's largest "carbon footprint" -- leading the nation in emitting the greenhouse gases that most scientists think contribute to global climate change. Other Kentucky cities follow closely, including the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area and Louisville, according to a study of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution.
The ability to store carbon emissions underground is critical to efforts to convert coal to liquid fuels -- a process that produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide that could be released into the atmosphere.
During the energy summit, experts urged lawmakers not to think of energy reform as an "either/or approach". Any attempts at comprehensive energy reform must include alternative energy sources, increased nuclear power, drilling, an eye toward the geopolitical ramifications of policies and advances in using coal, said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"We need to preserve the role of coal since 50 percent of our electricity comes from this source," he said.