By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Republican in the United States Senate, conservative Senator Lisa Murkowski, said she would consider voting for a "cap and trade" climate change bill Democrats are pushing if it also contains a vigorous expansion of nuclear energy and domestic oil drilling.
In an interview set to air on Sunday on the C-SPAN cable TV network, Murkowski said cap and trade legislation, which aims to mandate reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, must protect consumers from energy price increases and contain safeguards against market manipulation of pollution permits that would be traded by companies.
Some of these elements already are included in Democratic legislation in the Senate and House of Representatives.
"Count me as one of those who will keep my mind open as we move forward," said Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Senate energy panel and a member of her party's leadership.
Murkowski's remarks came after her fellow conservative, Senator Lindsey Graham, published a column in The New York Times with liberal Senator John Kerry, in which they vowed to work together to advance legislation tackling global warming.
In signaling her willingness to work on a bill, Murkowski said Democrats must include tangible incentives for building nuclear power plants and stepping up domestic oil drilling, offshore and on land. It has got to be "more than just window dressing," she warned.
Most Republicans in Congress have dismissed the Democratic initiative as little more than a "national energy tax" that would kill U.S. jobs at a time when the country is grappling with severe economic problems.
While the full Senate probably will not have time this year to debate and vote on a climate change bill, the willingness of some Senate conservatives to consider major environmental legislation could keep the effort in play next year.
Legislation narrowly passed the House in June, but faces a tougher time in the Senate.
ALASKA SEEING CLIMATE CHANGE
Asked about the Kerry-Graham column, Murkowski said, "It's a good indicator that perhaps the conversation is changing."
As the senior senator from Alaska, Murkowski acknowledged problems that could be linked to climate change.
"When you see changes to the land coming about ... what is causing the loss of the sea ice that adds to the erosion issues, yes, in Alaska we are seeing change," she said. "That's why I have been one of those Republicans who has stepped out front a little bit more on the issue of climate change."
President Barack Obama has been urging Congress to pass a bill reducing industries' carbon emissions through a cap and trade system. It would require companies to hold a dwindling number of pollution permits over the next four decades.
Companies that find ways to use clean, alternative energy in manufacturing and end up with an excess number of permits could sell them to firms making slower environmental progress.
The effort in Congress is intended to be part of an international fight against global warming, which scientists say could bring catastrophic consequences as temperature changes hurt agriculture, especially in poor countries, and create more violent storms and the spread of disease.
The problem with weaning the world off of cheap, high-polluting fossil fuels is that they would be largely replaced by wind, solar and other energy sources that for now are more expensive, with some of the technology unproven.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)