INDIANAPOLIS — Could a Prius-driving Republican who sequesters carbon on his Indiana tree farm break partisan gridlock over climate-change legislation?

U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar hopes so. Last week, the 78-year-old statesman introduced a bill that aims to cut energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions without taking a hit on the economy.

Dubbed the Lugar Practical Energy and Climate Plan, it offers what the senior senator from Indiana says are the best ideas from competing climate bills now stalled in the Senate.  

Among other things, it offers incentives to expand nuclear power, retire aging coal-fired power plants, boost alternative energy sources and switch from foreign to domestic oil.

Notably absent is a cap-and-trade provision that would cap emissions from burning fossil fuels and compel industries to buy and sell carbon pollution permits. Cap-and-trade critics say such a system would adversely impact coal-burning, manufacturing states like Indiana.  

At a press conference to introduce the bill, Lugar cited concerns of Hoosiers worried about the impact of a costly climate bill and fears of rising energy prices.

“Energy and climate legislation must reflect the economic realities facing Americans today,” Lugar said. “Like much of America, almost 10 percent of Hoosiers are unemployed. Many more are underemployed and living paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Some environmental groups came out quickly in opposition. Clean Air Watch accused Lugar of offering “amnesty for big polluters.” The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement that said the Lugar plan would “fail to cut global warming emissions to the level scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst of consequences of climate change.”

But even in their opposition, they concede Lugar has been a leader in Congress on cleaner-burning vehicles, renewable fuels and international climate negotiations.

That history may help push forward the politically divisive conversation on climate legislation, said Lugar spokesman Mark Hayes.

“He’d like to move this beyond the huge partisan divide it’s caught in now,” Hayes said.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, an opponent of the cap-and-trade provisions in other climate bills, said Lugar’s standing as a moderate Republican well-respected by his colleagues will help.

“Anything Dick Lugar proposes is going to be seen as having some merit,” Daniels said.

Lugar represents a coal-rich state home to 90 coal-fired power plants. Ninety-four percent of Indiana’s electricity is generated by coal.

Yet he’s long been willing to talk about damage done from burning coal and other fossil fuels.

He drives a low-emission, hybrid Toyota Prius and he’s converted one-third of his family farm in Indiana to hardwood trees, becoming an offset producer of oxygen — a mitigator of carbon emissions — for the Chicago Climate Exchange. It’s a voluntary pilot program for the trading of greenhouse gases.

In his bill, Lugar offers incentives to coal-fired utilities to retire their aging coal plants or equip them with carbon-capturing technology that has yet to become commercially available because of its expense.

That raises concerns from those in Indiana’s coal industry, who declined to comment publicly on the bill.

But Tom Williams, a spokesman for utility giant Duke Energy, which owns coal-fired plants in the Midwest and nuclear power plants in the Southeast, said it’s time for legislation that would move the nation into a low-carbon economy.

“The sooner we deal with this,” said Williams, “the cheaper it will be for all of us.”
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