Congress struggles over an energy policy while the U.S. keeps driving and driving

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference at Crissy Field following the recent oil spill in San Francisco, California.


Supporters of the energy bill adopted by the U.S. House last week are calling it a leap toward U.S. energy independence, a political watershed of sorts that would put the nation on a sensible energy diet.

But Senate Republicans today torched key provisions, powerful lobbyists opposed the legislation and President Bush had threatened a veto.

Further, some energy experts warn that the ideas coming out of Congress won’t do enough to ease U.S. oil vulnerability and deal with climate change.

“It’s difficult to put together legislative majorities in Washington on large issues like energy,” said Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. “We are a very diverse country, and government amplifies our diversities.”

Still, the 235-181 vote in the House was a political victory by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., although she and other supporters of the legislation were subdued when the U.S. Senate later failed to derail a promised filibuster on the bill, which means that key provisions likely will be altered in that chamber.

As passed by the House, the bill would mandate 40 percent better gas mileage in passenger vehicles, grant tax credits for fuel-efficient cars and residential solar panels, give a robust push to biofuels like ethanol from corn and cellulose in grasses, require utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar, phase out incandescent light bulbs, and impose new energy standards for appliances and buildings.

But Senate Republicans this morning killed provisions to raise $21 billion over 10 years, mostly by canceling tax breaks for large oil companies enacted in 2004. In issuing his veto threat, Bush said he opposes singling out “specific industries [oil and gas] for punitive treatment” and that he also doesn’t like the renewables requirement for utilities. Even before the Senate action, supporters had conceded that both provisions were likely to be changed or stripped, complicating efforts to subsidize fuel-efficient cars and extend to 2014 the $4,000 homeowner tax credit to install solar panels.

High stakes for lobbyists
The energy proposal means it’s crunch time in Washington for lobbies accustomed to winning: automakers, the oil and gas industry, and utilities. In the House they were trumped by a horde of conservation advocates and a gaggle of governors, including GOP heavyweights such as California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, the new chair of the National Governors Association. They and 22 other governors have grown tired of waiting on Congress and have organized their own regional energy initiatives.

U.S. automakers and their worker unions lost big when the House voted for the first time in 32 years to raise vehicle fuel economy standards. The House included “light trucks” in the 35 miles per gallon fleet-wide requirement to take effect by 2020, removing favored treatment that artificially created a market for gas-guzzling SUVs.

The change in auto efficiency rules didn’t come easily, with the venerable Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., being first to blink in a stare-down with Pelosi. The House provision is expected to remain in whatever comes out of the Senate.

Domestic politics aside, there’s room to wonder how the United States — until the early 1970s an oil exporter — became an oil importer beholden to unreliable governments in the energy-rich Middle East and South America. There’s also reason to ask whether the House energy bill and related pending legislation is anywhere near enough to blunt the colossal challenges of oil dependence and climate change.

The emerging energy crisis
So how did we get into this energy mess?

In early 1977, President Jimmy Carter donned a cardigan and went on national TV to ask Americans to conserve by turning down the thermostat, turning off lights and driving less. That was during the years when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) flexed its economic muscle and slowed production to protest a U.S. tilt toward Israel.

But President Ronald Reagan promised prosperity as crude prices fell in the early 1980s, and he was followed in office by President George H.W. Bush, who took a hands-off approach to energy issues. Amid lethargy over any need to conserve and Americans’ continuing love affair with cars, the auto industry worked with Dingell and other car-state Democrats to kill further mandates to improve gas mileage.

Cars got bigger, SUVs become prominent, speed limits increased and urban areas — including the Twin Cities — nixed mass transit in favor of highways that encouraged driving those bigger cars farther and farther to work and shop. Homes got bigger, expanded closets were stuffed with clothes made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, and plastics (from oil-based resins) became ubiquitous in consumer products and single-use packaging. More and more fuel-gobbling jets crowded the skies.

With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States swallows one-fourth of all oil produced on Earth. The United States goes through 22 million barrels of oil every day, two thirds of it for transportation. More than half of that oil is imported.

Now the U.S. ship of consumption has sailed into a perfect storm of consequences.

Many experts, including geologist and author (“Beyond Oil”) Kenneth S. Deffeyes, warn that world oil production has peaked. This means the easy stuff has been pumped out and it’ll be expensive to get what’s left — wells will be deeper and successful wells will be fewer. In addition, so much remaining oil is mixed with grit — including Canada’s tar sands and Colorado’s oil shale — that refining is difficult and costly.

Add the weakened U.S. dollar, and oil we buy on the international market becomes ever more costly to import. Economists expect pump prices to continue spiraling up, with some projections putting costs in the unthinkable range.

Then there’s populous China and India contracting for the same oil that the United States covets to support their emerging economies. In addition, oil exporting countries in the Middle East along with Indonesia, Russia, Venezuela and Mexico are keeping more of their oil for their growing economies.

Burning all that oil, along with coal, has had another unwanted effect: global warming, which the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change and others say is largely caused by carbon-loading from passenger cars and coal-fired power plants.

The House energy bill is one response, as are other bills on climate change (moving in the Senate) and on agriculture (the farm bill, with mandates on alternative fuels, has cleared the House and is pending in the Senate).

No one-stop fix
But are these bills enough?

Not according to the U.N.’s climate change panel, which has called for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the hard-won fuel efficiency standards, if enacted, will trim less than 5 percent from U.S. energy consumption by 2020. But if expanding urban sprawl is taken into account, the Center for Clean Air Policy says the net effect drops to zero.

So what makes it so difficult for Washington to effectively address energy consumption and climate change?

“In our system of government checks and balances, any expectation for a one-stop fix for large issues is delusional,” said the Humphrey Institute’s Jacobs.

Another factor is American culture itself — bigger is better and more is good. Indeed, the holiday season provides reminders that consumption is measured as an economic good.

And the lifestyle of consumerism won’t easily change.

Sometimes, it’s not even recognized by Americans — like those who drove SUVs to a Will Steger lecture in Eden Prairie last year to hear the explorer talk about the critical need to conserve energy.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 12/13/2007 - 11:54 am.

    The problem for most people is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. How can I further reduce my need to drive everywhere without an adequate public transport system? If I had a bus system I could catch a few block from my house (it’s now seven) and could take it to a store and back, I would use it, even if it took longer. But the transit system doesn’t exist. I work at home, make as few trips as possible and drive a car that gets an average of 25 miles per gallon.

    The worst part is the three most important decisions to protect the earth are ones no one wants to talk about: have fewer children, live closer to where you work and make an ENORMOUS investment in mass transit. Compact fluorescents, lower thermostats and energy efficient cars are important, but even if we all do that we’ll just head toward the precipice with poorer color clarity, colder body temps and in smaller cars.

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