Rev up America's energy future

The US badly needs a 21st-century energy policy. But can Washington get its act together to provide one?

Should new cars and trucks in the US get better gas mileage? Should more electricity come from renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and biofuels? Both moves would curb global warming and reduce oil imports. So why do they remain so controversial in Washington?

Energy bills passed by the Senate in June and the House last Saturday contain these and other valuable provisions that move US energy policy into the 21st century. But the bills, which differ in substantial ways, must be reconciled and then pass muster with President Bush. Whether these important provisions survive, or whether any energy bill will be enacted and signed into law when lawmakers return to work next month, is very much up in the air.

One provision in the Senate bill would raise the average fuel efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent boost. Right now, the United States ranks last among major industrialized countries in vehicle fuel efficiency, according to a new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation. While the new standard would still be far below those in Europe and Japan, it would at least bring the US in line with what countries such as China, Canada, and Australia will achieve in the next few years.

Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally said this week that fuel efficiency standards have damaged the auto industry and that a gasoline tax might better push drivers toward less gas-guzzling models.

That idea has been floated by Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, who carefully guards the auto industry's interests and helped ensure that the higher fuel-economy standard wasn't in the House bill. But Congress is unlikely to pass such a tax increase with an election year looming. US automakers already compete successfully in most foreign markets, where fuel-efficient cars are in demand. There's no reason to think that with a 12-year lead time they can't do that here, too.

The House bill calls for investor-owned utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources, including hydro and geothermal. Rural co-ops, municipal utilities, and the entire state of Hawaii would be exempt, and part of the requirement could be met simply through increasing efficiency. The move would prod utilities toward vitally needed investment in new technologies and fuel sources.

Both the fuel-economy and renewable energy standards are key provisions that should survive in any compromise bill sent to the president. But with an acidic political atmosphere in Washington, the crucial legislation faces an uncertain future. Though the president speaks often about the need for energy independence, the bills don't contain the usual friendly provisions for the oil and gas industry. Instead, they close two tax loopholes for oil companies in order to fund the renewables program.

If Mr. Bush wields his veto pen, the thin Democratic majorities in Congress would face a tall task in rounding up two-thirds majorities in both chambers to override him. Both the president and congressional Democrats will try to position themselves as the voice of the reasonable middle ground. But if they can't agree, the critical need to address America's energy future will be left to languish again.

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