Hill's Energy Battle Has Barely Begun
The Senate's passage of an energy bill last week gave environmentalists and consumer groups something to crow about, notably the first new fuel efficiency standards for automobiles since 1975.
The real energy battle, however, has yet to be fought.
That comes when Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate put forth plans to transform a largely voluntary effort against global warming into a mandatory emissions reductions scheme across all sectors of the economy. By all accounts, that legislation, which may appear on the floor of the House or the Senate as early as September, will trigger perhaps the biggest battle royal over environment and energy issues Congress has seen since the Clean Air Act of 1970. With slim majorities in both chambers, Democrats will need every vote. And passage will require the same kind of bipartisan compromise that made fuel efficiency standards possible.
In the fight over Corporate Average Fuel Economy, Senate Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Dianne Feinstein came together to repair the crumbling energy initiative at a time when many thought it was over. Their plan salvaged the fuel economy increase to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 but erased the 4 percent annual increases after that date. It passed by a vote voice to the surprise of nearly everyone.
"What happened on [fuel efficiency standards] is what's going to have to happen with global warming legislation," says Karen Wayland of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That compromise was a bipartisan compromise that was pretty strong."
Lexi Shultz, a lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees.
"What passage of the bill shows is that senators are coming to understand that we need change," Shultz says. She and others are heartened by votes from traditional automotive supporters like Democrats Byron Dorgan and Barbara Mikulski, not to mention a number of Republicans, including John Sununu from the Democrat-trending New Hampshire.
"I think we really have moved beyond where we were a few years ago," Shultz says. "On the flip side, I think we can't take anything for granted. This is going to have to be fought member to member, senator to senator."
Just as informative, say some Capitol Hill observers, were the energy proposals that didn't pass the Senate. The energy bill's toughest provision would have required utilities to garner 15 percent of their output from renewable sources by 2020. But that was filibustered by a cadre of Republicans led by Sen. Pete Domenici, who proposed an alternative that would have included "clean" sources like nuclear, which has no greenhouse gas emissions. "If there was any vote that prefigured the climate vote it was the [renewable electricity standard]," said one veteran of Washington energy policy. "I'm not saying everyone who supported it would support mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, but there clearly is crossover there." And those senators who supported fuel economy standards, renewable electricity standards, or both may find themselves subject to more attention from environmentalists. "Republican senators who showed a willingness to reach across the aisle to compromise on CAFE may have drawn attention to themselves," says the Democratic aide. "Those who are militantly opposed to climate policy also have noticed that and probably will push back vigorously in the opposite direction."
But no one believes that the CAFE vote translates into global warming votes. Far from it. The vote for fuel efficiency standards most likely had as much to do with weaning the country off Middle East oil as it did with conservation and environmental concerns. Even supporting a standard for renewable energy isn't terribly noteworthy. The Senate has done it twice before, though it's never been enacted. That makes it difficult for proponents of a global warming bill to draft a battle plan or court votes. On the Republican side, Trent Lott, Larry Craig, and Elizabeth Dole all voted for new fuel efficiency standardsnone are considered likely converts to a bill that would force reductions in greenhouse gases. "Each of those, I think, came to support CAFE for their own reasons," says Dan Becker, who leads the Sierra Club's lobbying efforts on global warming. For that reason, Becker believes that the buildup for a global warming fight may be premature because the votes needed aren't there yet, and his group is focusing on winning more seats for pro-green candidates in next year's congressional elections. Indeed, the biggest lessons many global warming activists took home from last week's long struggle to pass an energy bill may be the need for more friendly faces. "Looking at how closely divided the Senate is," Becker says. "I think it will be tough to get a global warming bill that will live up to its name."