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Flip that switch

For a change, Congress is considering revolutionary energy proposals. Will it have the nerve to pass them?

August 07, 2007

In june, the senate passed an energy bill loaded with creamy peanut butter. On Saturday, even as it was wrapping up the wiretapping bill discussed above, the House approved an energy package that's pure chocolate. If we could get these two together without removing their tastiest ingredients, the nation would be in for a history-making treat.

The Senate bill contained many valuable, if incremental, provisions on such things as energy efficiency, but its biggest and most controversial element was a crackdown on automotive fuel economy standards. For the first time in 20 years, it would force automakers to build cars that guzzle less gas. The House punted on fuel economy, but its energy bill contained an element just as groundbreaking: a requirement that the nation's utilities get 15% of their power from renewable sources such as the wind and sun by 2020.

What happens next depends on the conference committee that will be assigned to reconcile the two bills when Congress reconvenes in September. It could pass what might be the most significant energy legislation ever by including both the House's renewable energy standard and the Senate's fuel economy standard. Or it could strike a blow for the status quo by cutting them.

On the positive side, renewable energy enjoys broad support in both houses. Though a renewable energy standard didn't make it into the Senate bill because its sponsors feared a Republican filibuster, 50 senators sent a letter to energy committee leaders in April expressing support for such a measure, and several more favor it.

The Senate's fuel economy provisions may be more vulnerable because of fierce opposition from the likes of Rep. John D. Dingell (D.-Mich.), a guardian of auto-industry interests who wields vast influence over House energy policy. That's unfortunate, because the U.S. is an international laggard on this issue. A report from the Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation found that the U.S. has weaker fuel standards than Europe, Japan, China, Australia, South Korea and Canada. Detroit claims that it can't profitably sell higher-mileage cars here, but somehow it already does in those countries.

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