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Fuel for thought

California's two senators offer a smarter energy policy than the one Bush proposed Tuesday night.

January 25, 2007

IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH to get a standing ovation during the State of the Union address. One of President Bush's crowd-pleasers on Tuesday was a new energy policy designed to show his environmental side. It deserved no more than a golf clap. Nice putt, Mr. President. Too bad it took you 10 strokes to reach the green.

Bush's rigid attitude toward climate change is beginning to thaw, though not quite as fast as the polar ice caps. His ideas for reducing oil consumption were tougher than anything he's offered before, and his mandate for 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017 was a nice gesture. But his plan does much too little to make a dent in the carbon emissions that are fueling global warming.

Beyond the politically painless ritual of calling for more production of ethanol and other alternative fuels, it was mostly a rehash of past half-measures. And for the president to say he wants to step up oil production in "environmentally sensitive ways" by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge indicates that he still doesn't understand the meaning of the phrase.

What's worrisome about the president's embrace of alternative fuels is that his policy fails to mention their comparative cleanliness. It's worth noting that "alternative" fuels are not the same as "renewable" ones; the former includes coal, which from a carbon-emissions standpoint is disastrous. Focusing on reducing oil consumption while ignoring emissions could do more environmental harm than good.

Another key Bush proposal is tightening vehicle fuel standards, a marvelous idea considering they haven't been improved in 20 years. But the president's approach is misguided. Currently, the average fuel economy of an automaker's entire passenger-car fleet has to be at least 27.5 miles per gallon. Rather than boost that standard, Bush wants to tie fuel economy improvements to a vehicle's weight class.

The Senate has a better solution. A bill introduced Monday would increase the average fuel economy standard by 10 mpg by the 2019 model year, setting the kind of target that will require prompt and significant change in Detroit.

Meanwhile, California's two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are backing competing bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Feinstein's could stand to be tougher; it might let California power generators emit more than they could under state law. And Boxer should reconsider her unrealistic call for a whopping 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

Still, in general the senators' approaches make more sense, environmentally and politically, than anything the president described Tuesday night. Somewhere in between their two bills -- and outside the president's initiatives -- lies a policy that can help the U.S. become both more efficient and independent.

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