It’s a new Congress in Washington and already we're getting mixed messages about the next steps on energy policy from Capitol Hill.

President Obama set a tone early in the week during the State of the Union speech, but it may have fallen on deaf ears, particularly in the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee is likely to be a focus of attention, and a Politico piece by Dan Goode already pointed out that a few members of the Tea Party are likely to make it an interesting body — but it goes beyond that.

At the top of the committee sits Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The Republican ranking member is the ultimate wild card for the Grand Old Party. She was practically abandoned back in the fall when she lost a primary to Joe Miller. Now she is the party’s leading voice on the committee. During her time in the Senate, Murkowski has supported opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and she tried to remove the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions, but she has also been a voice for compromise. When Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) headed the committee, it was one of the most productive groups in a very unproductive Senate.

Bingaman, for his part, has been a Democratic workhorse, while others in the Senate have been show horses. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have shown zero results on passing environmental legislation on their own over the last year. Now perhaps this is the time for Bingaman to emerge as a major voice within the party and the Senate. If he is to do so, his supporting cast is not the most reliable bunch assembled. The new Energy and Commerce Committee includes committee staple Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an outspoken supporter of lifting the Obama-imposed offshore drilling ban; and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who is so anti-EPA that I suspect he mistakenly eats the black liquorish jelly beans thinking they're lumps of coal. (Why else would anyone eat those terrible things?)

Then of course there are those who are more anti-EPA than Manchin. They go by the names Rand Paul (R-Ken.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and they are both members of the Tea Party. While they have grabbed headlines for their outspokenness on a range of issues over the last year, they are in comfortable territory on their new committee. Consider this: All 10 of the Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee are from states that are either heavy oil or coal producers, and a few of these states have both. Add Manchin and Landrieu, and that brings the total to a dozen. While Colorado is a coal-producing state, I don’t think Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is in the same category as the other 12.

Anyway, the point of this rambling armchair observation is that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be an interesting body to watch. The 22 members may control whether President Obama ever gets close to reaching his goals of getting America on 80 percent clean energy by 2035 and eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. The committee has both power and character, which is all you can ask for when you follow Capitol Hill.

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