Lugar put on defensive on energy issues

Source: Maureen Groppe, Gannett Washington Bureau • Posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012


  • Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., faces a primary challenge.By J. Scott Applewhite, AP Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., faces a primary challenge.
WASHINGTON – For decades, Sen. Richard Lugar has been Mr. Energy.

The Indiana Republican speaks out repeatedly on the costs of “our oil addiction” and how the reliance on imported oil makes the U.S. less secure. He’s crossed party lines to support higher fuel efficiency standards, and strongly advocates for biofuels. He drives a hybrid car and regularly honors Hoosier “energy patriots” who have taken steps to improve America’s energy security.When Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis created a center to study renewable energy in 2007, they named the center after Lugar.

But as Lugar faces his toughest election in decades, he’s been on the defensive on the issue.

Opponents on both the left and the right have accused him of supporting higher gasoline taxes.

Lugar, himself, has been talking less about oil alternatives and focusing instead on his advocacy for a controversial oil pipeline. He’s also criticized steps to fight climate change despite his past speeches warning about the international crises that could result from the consequences of global warming.

When the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced rules that would, for the first time, limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, Lugar quickly announced his opposition.

“Our energy focus should be on dealing with our strategic oil vulnerability that contributes to high gasoline prices and weakens our national security,” he said.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said Lugar hasn’t changed positions. But he’s emphasizing the parts of his views that sell better in a GOP primary.

“Part of what we’re looking at is just the reality of being in a competitive primary, where he’s putting more emphasis on some things that he used to not put as much emphasis on because it’s about appealing to the base in the party as opposed to the mass of voters in the middle who end up deciding general elections,” Downs said.

When Lugar ran for re-election in 2006 — facing no opposition from fellow Republicans or even Democrats — he promised to make energy his top priority for the next six years.

Through hearings and speeches, Lugar has warned that the nation’s dependence on foreign oil could result in lower living standards, increased risks of war and environmental degradation. He’s introduced dozens of energy-related bills and traveled internationally to study energy issues.

“Probably more than any other current member of Congress, Lugar has studied the geopolitics of energy, mastered its complexities, warned of its risks, and outlined specific policy options,” veteran congressional correspondent John T. Shaw wrote in a recently published book on Lugar.

Shaw credits Lugar with key items in a 2007 energy law, including improving energy efficiency of vehicles and buildings, efforts to promote ethanol and encouraging the state department to focus on energy security issues.

On the polarizing issue of climate change, Lugar was one of a handful of Republicans to back in 2003 an unsuccessful proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and other industries. But when Congress again took up the issue in 2010, he rejected entreaties to work on a bipartisan bill and instead offered up his own plan that would be less onerous on coal-dependent states like Indiana.

Rather than capping carbon emissions, Lugar focused largely on improving energy efficiency through building upgrades, more fuel-efficient cars and other means.

“I’ve continued to be concerned about global warming and carbon control but … the Obama cap-and-trade situation was one that I found objectionable because it really categorically would shut down the coal industry in Indiana.”

Lugar recently called for a review of overseas climate change projects funded in part by the U.S Agency for International Development. He said he’s concerned that the government “is being asked to devote resources to a politically determined objective.”

“I would like to have a comprehensive report as to why the money is being devoted to that objective what does he mean? did he give any example? as opposed to the economic, education or health betterment of the people — the normal objectives of USAID,” he said.

The energy issue Lugar has been most vocal about lately is his support for a Canadian firm’s application to build a pipeline to carry crude oil from Canada to Texas refineries. Lugar’s Senate office has issued more than two dozen press releases on the Keystone XL pipeline in recent months. It’s also been featured in his campaign’s radio and television ads.

In the first major ad launch, the spots credit Lugar with writing the law to force Obama to make a decision on the pipeline. Because Lugar is the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which had jurisdiction on the issue, his was the top name on Senate Republican’s version of the pipeline language. But it was Republicans’ control of the House that gave the party the leverage to include the language in an unrelated, must-pass bill.

While Lugar argues the Keystone pipeline will lower gas prices, his opponents charge him with wanting to increase gas prices through higher gas taxes.

Lugar’s primary opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, as well as Democrat opponent Joe Donnelly, point to a 2009 opinion piece Lugar wrote that championed a proposal by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. Lugar did argue for raising the 18.4 cents-per gallon federal gas tax to better reflect the true cost of gas and to spur alternatives. But the cost to consumers would be offset with a corresponding cut in the payroll tax.

Lugar says that the idea is still a good one to serve as an incentive to use less gas, but it’s not practical in the current political climate.

“It’s been impossible to even get a discussion of tax reform in the current Congress,” he said.

Lugar also has been criticized by the conservative Club for Growth, which has endorsed Mourdock, for voting to raise the federal gas tax …” in 1982.

A 1982 highway bill that Lugar voted for increased the then-four cents-a-gallon tax to nine cents. Lugar also voted for a 1990 deficit reduction package that increased the tax by another five cents. Lugar opposed a 1993 deficit reduction package that included a 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax, bringing it to its current 18.4 cents.

The tax has been the main way Washington has paid for roads and public transportation. But revenues haven’t kept up with demand, in part because vehicles have become more fuel efficient so less tax revenue is generated for the miles traveled. The revenue squeeze — which requires Congress to either find additional funding or cut projects — has made it difficult for Congress to pass a new highway bill. Lugar voted against the Senate’s version of the bill because it doesn’t address the funding shortfall and because he thought the funding distribution was unfair to Indiana.

Downs said he doubts the energy issue will pay a big role in the election as the criticisms of Lugar on the gas tax are going to be used by his opponents as another reason to vote for Mourdock, while Lugar backers will point to his advocacy of the pipeline as a reason to support him.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if both sides had polling data that said, ‘Yep. This is a good issue. Let’s run with it,” Downs said.