Renewed energy

Congress saw a flurry of eco-friendly initiatives this month. Will any of them lead to a clean and sane energy future?

Published November 25, 2005 8:00AM (EST)

Caterwauling over the Iraq war in the past week brought Congress to a rancorous new low, drowning out calls from both sides of the aisle for a clean and sane energy future.

A handful of senators and representatives unveiled proposals pressing for the Bush administration and automakers to shrink America's outsize energy demands and tackle the climate crisis. They got little to no attention at the time, but their innovative thinking could help set U.S. energy policy on a new, more progressive course.

On Nov. 17, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., introduced a "Health Care for Hybrids" bill that outlines a new approach for boosting fuel efficiency in Detroit. It would offer struggling U.S. automakers a voluntary but potentially enticing deal: relief from some of the high healthcare costs they pay for retired employees (expected to total more than $5 billion in 2005) in exchange for a commitment to reinvest at least half of those savings in the development and manufacture of fuel-efficient vehicles.

The U.S. auto industry has long complained about these healthcare costs, portraying them as an undue financial burden that their competitors in countries with nationalized healthcare systems don't have to bear. Healthcare expenses currently account for about $1,500 of the cost of every General Motors car.

Many D.C. enviros support the proposed tradeoff, but they wish the bill obligated the companies to comply with substantially more aggressive fuel-economy standards.

When Obama first publicly discussed this proposal in September, during a speech at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, he proposed a 3 percent per year increase in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards over the next 15 years. But there's no mention of CAFE in his current bill. Rather, there's a stipulation that automakers can't undermine their investments in efficiency by simultaneously manufacturing other, more wasteful vehicles.

Despite the disappointing loss of the CAFE component, Obama's proposal "is nevertheless a gain for vehicle efficiency," said Deron Lovaas, vehicles campaign director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and will improve the average fuel-economy performance of American cars."

Enviros are even more enthusiastic about a bill proposed Nov. 16 by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act. Despite its obfuscatory title, the legislation has clear goals: It would require the White House and federal agencies to develop an action plan to reduce America's oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels of oil a day within a decade, and 10 million barrels a day by 2031. Current U.S. consumption stands at 20 million barrels a day.

The bill has an uncommonly broad and regionally diverse bipartisan coalition behind it, thanks in part to efforts to corral support by Set America Free, a coalition of hawks and environmentalists who believe America is funding terrorism with its petrodollars. Half of the measure's 10 Senate cosponsors are Republicans -- Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) -- while its Democratic cosponsors hail from around the country -- Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Obama (Ill.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.). The House version, introduced by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., has an even higher proportion of Republican backers -- 22 of 26 cosponsors.

The act wouldn't stipulate specific regulatory programs or require tightening of CAFE standards -- it would let the executive branch figure out the best way to meet the targets. "This bill specifies the ends but leaves flexible the means," says the NRDC's Lovaas. "Still, it's a very ambitious mandate, somewhat like the Clean Air Act in its breadth and the flexibility of its interpretation."

The bill also calls for fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, loan guarantees for manufacturers of hybrids, and incentives for alternative-fuels development and mass-transit systems.

Even though senators rejected a similar call for curbing domestic oil consumption during debate over the energy bill this summer, cosponsors of this new act are optimistic about their chances of success. "There was a mental sea change in America when gas hit $3 a gallon," Brownback told the Associated Press last week, and there's now greater support for reining in oil use.

Also last week, Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Delaware's Joe Biden, the committee's ranking Democrat, introduced a "Sense of the Senate" resolution that would enjoin the United States to participate in negotiations toward a post-Kyoto international agreement to tackle climate change -- something the Bush administration is loath to do. The move came just two weeks before reps from around the world are scheduled to convene in Montreal to start discussions on what kind of climate deal should succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

Biden described the resolution as "a chance to clear the air and get back on the right side of history  [It] gives the Senate, with its constitutional power to ratify treaties, a chance to go on record in favor of a global solution to a global problem."

Lugar and Biden also endorsed the forward-looking proposals for global climate strategy outlined in a new report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change -- "International Climate Efforts Beyond 2012." Biden praised the report's "flexible road map," which he says offers "more than just a 'one-size-fits-all' approach" by calling for countries to implement customized climate strategies to suit their developing or industrialized economies.

Other recent energy-related proposals include the Energy for Our Future Act, introduced Nov. 17 by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., which calls for an increase in CAFE standards and a repeal of tax breaks for the oil industry. There's also the Fuel Security and Consumer Choice Act, introduced on Nov. 10 by farm-state senators Obama, Lugar and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, which would require that within 10 years all vehicles sold in the U.S. be able to run on ethanol-based fuels in addition to pure gasoline (though there's still considerable disagreement over the environmental benefits of ethanol).

None of these measures is expected to make much advancement before the end of the year, but the flurry of activity bodes well for a far more visible and productive debate on America's energy policy in 2006.

By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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