WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a broad energy bill that would impose the most significant increase in vehicle fuel-economy standards in three decades, and the White House said President Bush would sign it.
The measure cleared the Senate, 86 to 8, after Democratic leaders gave in to the president's demands that they preserve oil industry tax breaks and drop a requirement that utilities generate more electricity from cleaner sources. The bill now heads to the House, which is expected to approve it next week before Congress leaves for the holidays.
"Thirty years ago, we didn't have airbags, the Internet was a science-fiction fantasy and the closest thing to a GPS system came from Rand McNally, and you had to fold it six or eight times," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. "Today we have hybrid cars, hydrogen cars, ethanol cars and fully electric cars. And now, after 30 years, we are on the brink of passing new fuel-economy standards."
Even scaled back in its ambitions, the legislation marks an important achievement for Democrats, who are eager to showcase the ways they have reset congressional priorities as they wrap up their first year in charge.
But it also underscored the difficulties they face -- with their narrow majority in the Senate and the president's veto power -- as they prepare to undertake their next major environmental initiative in January: a bill that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, oil refineries and other sources.
The bill passed Thursday contains scores of initiatives designed to save energy and promote less-polluting technologies, from requirements for more efficient appliances to loans that would help small businesses use cleaner energy sources.
But it has two major requirements that will cut the nation's oil use: a 40% increase in fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks by 2020, for a fleet-wide average of 35 miles per gallon, and a fivefold increase -- to 36 billion gallons -- in the amount of alternative home-grown fuels, such as ethanol, that must be added to the nation's gasoline supply by 2022.
"There is no act that the Congress could take that will do more to cut our dependence upon foreign oil than this measure," said New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The White House, in a statement from spokeswoman Dana Perino, said the bill meshes with the goal Bush outlined in his State of the Union address in January to cut gasoline consumption by 20% within 10 years. "By addressing the concerns of the administration and moving forward with a bipartisan approach, senators have taken steps to improve our economic and energy security," her statement said.
The change in the fuel efficiency rules came when Detroit and its congressional allies relented after years of resistance.
The increase in miles-per-gallon requirements is the largest since the fuel-economy program was established in 1975. It is the most consequential environmental initiative in this Congress and is widely viewed as an important step toward reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and curtailing global warming.
Currently, each automaker's fleet of cars must average 27.5 mpg and its light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and minivans, 22.2 mpg. The tougher miles-per-gallon rules are projected to save 1.1 million barrels of oil a day by 2020. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels a day, an amount that is expected to rise to about 24 million by 2020.
The last energy bill, passed in 2005 by the Republican-controlled Congress, was tilted toward increasing domestic energy production. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that this new bill was a "much greener energy bill than we've seen in the past."
California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said he was relieved the bill did not include language that could have undercut the state's plan to enact tailpipe standards. California has been waiting nearly two years for an Environmental Protection Agency waiver for its standards.
"The Bush administration doesn't want California setting emissions standards," he said. "But under this bill, the Clean Air Act has been preserved, and that's extremely important, because it gives the EPA the authority to let California set its own standards."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a lead sponsor of the tougher fuel-economy rules, also inserted into the Congressional Record a statement that "there was no intent in any way, shape, or form, to negatively affect, or otherwise restrain California or any other state's existing or future tailpipe emissions law, or any future EPA authority on tailpipe emissions."
The pared-down energy bill is far less ambitious than the bill approved by the House last week and was a bittersweet victory for environmental groups.