CAFE for Christmas

December 11, 2007

From the remnants of an ambitious energy conservation bill shot down by the Senate last week, much of value could still be salvaged by congressional negotiators.

Most important is the centerpiece provision that would raise fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in three decades. It offers not only the quickest, most effective way to combat global warming in a single step but the surest path to help motorists cope with the high cost of gasoline.

If nothing else, Congress should pull the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards out of the larger bill and send them as a stand-alone measure to the White House before the Christmas recess.

This rare opportunity - in which both houses of Congress, the automobile industry and the autoworkers union agree on raising average vehicle mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 - must not be missed. President Bush might even be shamed into signing it.

For all of that, though, raising fuel-efficiency standards to a level scientists say is well within the grasp of existing technology remains a minimum of what must be done soon to address the twin problems of global warming and a dwindling supply of oil.

Al Gore spoke yesterday in Oslo, Norway, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, of an international crisis that has reached "the 11th hour." He called for a global cap on carbon emissions, a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired utilities unless they can safely trap and store the carbon dioxide by-product, and the imposition of a carbon tax to put a more direct price on polluters.

The U.S. isn't close to such steps. Congress is considering a "cap and trade" program for carbon smokestack emissions, but its prospects for passage are poor and Mr. Bush has promised a veto. An attempt to wean the country from coal-fired utilities posed a problem for the energy conservation bill in the Senate, where a mandate to increase the use of renewable sources such as solar, nuclear, wind and biomass worried senators in regions where such strategies would be very expensive.

A carbon tax isn't in the works at all. In fact, another impediment to the energy bill in the Senate is White House opposition to ending tax breaks for oil companies.

But a long-overdue boost in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards could win approval within days, and would be a major achievement if Mr. Bush and Congress agree. Just say yes.

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