Fueling around

August 09, 2007

Democrats running Congress can blame President Bush and their tiny Senate majority for most of the disappointments of their tenure so far. But on their bid to apply progressive policy to energy and the environment - potentially a signature issue - Democrats are getting beat by their own guys.

If House leaders, in particular, can't find the discipline within their ranks to finally muscle past the auto industry and raise motor vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, voters might well ask what difference it makes which party is in charge.

Environmental protection, like gun rights, bears no party label, of course. But given the views of those involved, it was expected that when control of Congress shifted from Republicans to Democrats this year, energy legislation would also shift, from an industry-based approach aimed at encouraging resource exploitation toward one favoring conservation and curbs on polluting fossil fuels.

That shift did occur - but it hasn't gone nearly far enough.

The most laudable feature of the energy bill passed by the House last weekend is a requirement that by 2020 electric utilities must produce 15 percent of their power from sources other than coal, including wind, solar and biomass. Yet the measure is silent on fuel-efficiency standards - the swiftest path to conserving oil and curbing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi favors a Senate-passed proposal to raise average vehicle fuel efficiency to 35 miles per gallon in 2020 - up from the current average of about 25 mpg. But she couldn't get past the rigid resistance of Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and longest-serving member of the House, who fronts for the auto industry.

When House and Senate negotiators meet this fall to reconcile differences in their energy proposals, the best result would be a combined measure that includes the Senate fuel-efficiency standards and the House renewable-fuel requirement for utilities. But Mr. Dingell will be working against such a bargain.

House Republicans had the right idea about seniority: Just because a member has been around the longest and is next in line doesn't mean he or she should get to lead a committee. The speaker should find a new job for Mr. Dingell if he can't be a team player.

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