The environmental movement has been trying for more than 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, to force the auto industry to build cars that get better mileage. It took record gas prices and worrisome signs of a changing climate to do it, but the light finally turned green this week with the Senate's passage of a history-making energy bill.
The final version, expected to win quick passage in the House and to avoid President Bush's veto pen, doesn't go nearly far enough to wean the nation off fossil fuels or reduce the threat of global warming. Most disappointing, a mandate for the country to get 15% of its electricity from renewable sources like the sun and wind was removed. Also deleted were provisions that would have helped pay for all that clean energy by revoking tax breaks previously doled out to the oil and gas industry. Yet even if the bill takes a smaller step than hoped, it's still a major stride forward.
Fuel standards in the United States are among the weakest in the industrialized world, encouraging production of wasteful and environmentally disastrous vehicles. Under the energy bill, the average U.S. fleetwide standard will be 35 miles per gallon by 2020, about a 10-mpg bump from the current level. That's projected to save at least 1.1 million barrels of oil a day in 2020 (the U.S. currently consumes about 20 million barrels a day). Also worth celebrating are provisions that will improve energy efficiency for lightbulbs, heating and cooling systems and appliances.