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Power switch

If they don't run out of steam, Senate Democrats have a chance to finally pass a serious energy package.

June 12, 2007

AFTER BEING BATTERED on immigration reform last week, congressional Democrats could use a win. They have a chance for a big one this week as the Senate takes up a comprehensive energy package that could be the most environmentally responsible move from the federal government in six years under President Bush. Or it could be buried under a pile of harmful amendments.

Splits in the Democratic majority were enough to torpedo immigration reform, and there's considerable danger the same could happen on energy. Bills cobbled together into a package by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) aim at tightening automotive fuel standards, increasing production of renewable fuels and improving energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, among other things. But some of these initiatives were already defanged before passing through committee, and senators from both parties are lining up with amendments that would pull teeth from the rest.

The bill's most important provisions are aimed at improving the mileage of U.S. automotive fleets from an average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2020. But the auto industry successfully weakened the bill by pushing the inclusion of an "offramp" that lets federal regulators put off the improvements if they're deemed not to be cost-effective. Amendments are expected this week to make the bill even friendlier to Detroit.

Meanwhile, the bill's call for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels a year by 2022 could be undermined by representatives of coal states who want liquid-coal fuel to be allowed in the mix. Liquid coal is an environmental catastrophe, emitting double the greenhouse gases of gasoline.

There is one highly beneficial amendment in the works: a requirement to be introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that the nation get 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Twenty-four states already have renewable-power mandates, and a federal standard would be a dramatic step toward curbing global warming. As for most of the other amendments, senators should make like a wind turbine and blow them away.

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