Jeff Bingaman’s announcement that he will be leaving the U.S. Senate in 2012 may not garner the headlines that Joe Lieberman’s departure generated a few weeks back, but it may have some serious ripple effects in the environmental community.

For several years, Bingaman has been the steady leader of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and since he first came to the Senate in 1982, he has been a stalwart backer of pro-environmental policies. Hailing from New Mexico, Bingaman has focused on wildlife protection and responsible management of public lands since arriving in Washington during the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Now, as he looks towards the finish line of his Senate career in 2012, Bingaman is likely to depart with some serious environmental uncertainties lingering.

Since 2006, the New Mexico senator has focused on a cap-and-trade bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2030. That bill — and anything remotely like it —will not happen before Bingaman departs the Senate. And a major power shift would have to happen between now and 2012 for it to happen in the years immediately after his departure. While cap-and-trade will remain an unchecked box for Bingaman, it’s not really his fault. The latest attempt to pass the bill was headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and was sort of pushed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.). Despite the former’s clout as a one-time presidential nominee and the latter’s power as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the bill went up in flames.

In retrospect, it would have been wiser for Democrats to let Bingaman be the quarterback of the cap-and-trade bill. He is measured, reasonable and as the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Bingaman has given that group a reputation for cooperation, productivity and civility. Those characteristics are hard to find in the Senate these days.

When you consider the diverse views and allegiances of this committee, Bingaman’s leadership is even more noteworthy. He has had to balance views from members like Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described socialist, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a climate change denier, along with a cast of characters who have made their way to the committee election after election. Despite all these conflicting interests, Bingaman has been able to work across the aisle, most notably with ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), to pass legislation in an environment where doing so is not always easy.

But all things must pass, and the steady leadership of Jeff Bingaman’s time in the Senate will pass as well. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee will change hands once again, possibly into Republican control, when someone like Murkowski will take the chairman’s role or perhaps someone more outside the mainstream like Barrasso.

If Democrats retain power in the Senate — which will be 1 degree harder with an open seat in New Mexico — it will be interesting to see who gets the nod. There’s always the possibility that Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) or Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) could move into the chairman’s seat, and there are more entertaining possibilities like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) or the aforementioned Sanders. Any of these choices could make the Senate a more entertaining place in a post-Bingaman Washington, but it’s likely it will become even less productive.

Sen. Bingaman's departure means more uncertainty for the environment
New Mexico senator's plan to retire creates questions for Democrats and environmentalists in 2012.