A federal standard

June 24, 2007

The Senate reached an important milestone Thursday when it voted overwhelmingly to approve an energy bill that, if enacted, would require the first major increase in vehicle fuel efficiency since federal standards were imposed in 1975.

The "if" is a big one. The Senate measure emerged much compromised with several of its key parts missing. Nonetheless, this turning point - in a chamber that could barely muster three dozen votes for similar proposals in the past - gives momentum to perhaps even stronger action by the House over the next few months.

As lawmakers in both chambers continue trying to shape a broad energy policy that can wean the nation from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse emissions that contribute to global warming, and encourage new technologies to achieve those goals, they must keep in mind that the quickest and most effective step is demanding that automakers become a bigger part of that solution.

An encouraging new development in this year's debate came when Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, long a champion of the U.S. auto industry and its workers, announced she had run out of patience with decades of stalling and excuses.

"It's time for our auto industry to make the changes they need to survive and that our planet needs to survive," Ms. Mikulski told her colleagues. After voting twice against raising fuel efficiency standards in recent years, she was willing to support a stronger measure than what ultimately passed: an increase in the combined average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, up from about 24 mpg today.

Soaring gasoline prices and the nation's dangerous dependence on foreign oil have helped spark an attitude change in Ms. Mikulski and many other lawmakers.

Among the features dropped from the bill was a proposal to end tax breaks for oil companies and extend those incentives instead to developers of alternative fuels. Similarly, a requirement that utilities derive at least 15 percent of their fuel from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, instead of coal was blocked. Fear of even higher prices played a role in both cases.

But no pain-free options to the nation's energy crisis have presented themselves. At least the Senate is finally moving in the right direction.

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