Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Some progress on energy bill

The United States Senate, which has seen its standing with the public sink to historic lows owing to its inaction on the gamut of national problems, finally delivered last Thursday night on an energy bill that is many years overdue. If the House of Representatives will do its duty this fall, some modest trust in the legislative branch will be restored.

Our own esteemed senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, voted for the bill and for the key parliamentary maneuver that got the bill to a final vote. An extraordinary 60 votes are needed in the Senate to stop a filibuster and get major legislation to the floor, and Lincoln and Pryor voted to do that.

Although Republicans no longer have a majority in the Senate, their numbers ordinarily prevent passage of serious legislation.

A handful of them also switched Thursday to put the energy bill over the threshold.

While thanking Lincoln and Pryor for helping put the country on a slightly saner course on energy consumption in the next two decades, we have to point out that they were also part of the problem. They sided with the big three automakers in blocking a stronger course that would have produced greater energy conservation and better air quality.

The critical issue was fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and trucks, which have not been raised since 1989 owing to the intransigence of the big American carmakers and the petroleum industry. The fleet standard has remained at 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 22.2 for light trucks and SUVs. Together, they average about 25 mpg.

The Senate bill will require automakers to produce vehicles with a fleetwide average of 35 mpg by 2020. That is 13 years.
The technology to achieve that economy has existed for many years and foreign makers are producing cars with far better mileage. The U.S. car makers wanted much smaller standards, and Pryor promoted a mild proposal that the manufacturers wanted. A handful of Southern Democrats, Republicans and Democrats from the manufacturing states blocked the tougher legislation until the 35-mpg-by-2020 compromise was worked out.

Even at that, the benefits for the nation will be immense. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which pushed for much higher standards, said the 35 mpg standard would reduce U.S. consumption of oil by 1.2 million barrels a day eventually and would cut the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which cause global warming, by an amount equivalent to taking 30 million of today’s cars off the road.

We will feel that even here in rural Arkansas, where at least three counties (our own Pulaski, Crittenden and Newton) already exceed the allowable smog in the atmosphere under air-quality standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Few people in the country feel the pinch of gasoline prices like Arkansans do. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that Arkansans average spending 4.87 percent of their income on motor fuel, one of the highest rates in the country. Anything that reduces oil demand and reduces price pressures ought to be welcome here.

Immediate results? The same day as the Senate’s action, Chrysler Corp. announced that it would soon implement one bit of new technology to help it reach the higher standards, fixing engines so that they will shut some cylinders when they are not needed.

Manufacturers in another eight years will have to make at least half their new vehicles capable of running on 85 percent ethanol. That should give a boost to our fledgling ethanol industry in Arkansas.

Aside from the vehicle efficiency standards, however, the energy bill that finally emerged is a pale imitation of reform. It feints in the direction of developing alternative energy sources to petroleum, but Republicans and the White House blocked the steps that might actually have achieved it.

The bill calls for expanding renewable fuels by 36 billion gallons over the next 10 years, but Republicans and a few Democrats thwarted the step that might have actually produced it, a tax on the hugely profitable oil companies that would be used to develop wind and solar power, ethanol and other renewable fuels.

The GOP minority also blocked a requirement that electric utilities increase the share of power they get from wind and solar power and other renewable forms.

Oh, well, we should still celebrate small good works in the face of the phalanx of powerful industry groups that like the way things are and have the political money and muscle to protect them. And, yes, while we are at it, a medium-sized thanks to Senators Lincoln and Pryor.