House passes a sweeping energy bill

Times Staff Writer

The House on Thursday approved the biggest increase in vehicle fuel-economy standards since gasoline cost less than a dollar a gallon, in a sweeping energy bill that is headed for a showdown in the Senate and a possible veto from President Bush.

The measure would require a 40% increase in fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks by 2020, for a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon, and would be the first congressional raising of the standards since they were established in 1975.

The bill is the Democrats’ first major effort to attack global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil since they won control of Congress a year ago.


The 235-181 vote came a day after a Senate panel advanced a separate measure that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, manufacturing facilities and other sources.

“Today marks the dawn of a future with less dependence on foreign oil, more renewable energy and a safer climate,” Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, said during debate on the House bill.

“This bill marks a turning point away from America’s untenable path of reliance on dirty fossil fuels that pollute our planet and link us to dangerous foreign regimes.”

But the bill faces trouble in the narrowly divided Senate and a White House veto threat because of provisions -- supported by environmentalists but opposed by industry groups -- that would repeal oil industry tax breaks and require utilities to generate 15% of their electricity by 2020 from cleaner sources, such as the sun and wind.

In a statement after the vote, the Bush administration chastised Democratic leaders for pushing a “partisan bill” they knew had “no chance of being signed into law.” The White House expressed hope the Senate would take a “more cooperative approach.”

Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he would also oppose the measure as written.

The 1,055-page bill includes major initiatives and scores of smaller ones. It would mandate a fivefold increase -- to 36 billion gallons by 2022 -- in the amount of domestic alternative fuels, such as ethanol, that must be added to the nation’s gasoline supply. And it would promote energy- efficient lightbulbs and provide a tax incentive for biking to work.

It would repeal about $13 billion in tax breaks for oil companies and steer the revenue to incentives to promote cleaner energy sources, and for fuel-saving and emission-reduction technologies. It would require more energy- efficient appliances, establish a program to train workers for so-called green-collar jobs and make available bonds for community projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans charged that the bill’s incentives and subsidies for alternative energy would distort the domestic market for energy.

“We are moving from a market-based energy policy . . . to a government-mandated energy policy,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I don’t think the country wants the government controlling energy, and that’s what this bill leads us to.”

Opponents panned the bill for failing to boost domestic production of oil and scoffed at the idea that it would provide relief from high energy prices.

“The static electricity created by my shoes rubbing across this carpet creates more energy than the Democrats’ energy bill,” said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa). Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) came to the House floor with a lump of coal, asking why the bill did not do more to promote use of the abundant domestic resource.

The bill’s supporters said it included incentives to promote technologies that would reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Democratic leaders, eager to end this session with a big accomplishment and anxious about political fallout from high gas prices, hope to send the bill to Bush this month.

The provisions opposed by Bush may be stripped out in the Senate and a pared-down bill sent back to the House for expected approval.

The bill’s supporters are optimistic that a bill with the tougher fuel-economy standards could get Bush’s signature now that these rules have the support of the automakers, which had resisted stricter standards for years.

Greg Martin, a General Motors spokesman, said the new fuel-economy rules would be a technological challenge but GM was committed to try to meet it. He added, however, that it would “come at a price both for manufacturers and consumers.”

Environmentalists cheered the vote. Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth said the bill represented a “paradigm shift in our nation’s approach to energy.”

An analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington think tank, said the bill would reduce projected energy use for 2030 by almost 8% and carbon dioxide emissions by 10%.

About half of the savings, the council said, would come from the new vehicle fuel-economy rules.

The standards, once fully implemented, will save about 1.1 million barrels of oil a day in 2020, according to the bill’s supporters. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day and is expected to reach about 24 million barrels a day by 2020.

The current average standard for cars is 27.5 mpg, and for light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and minivans, 22.2 mpg.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), whose efforts to save energy extended to insisting that the Capitol Christmas tree include energy-efficient lights, has made a new national energy policy a priority.

Republicans said Democrats wrote the bill largely without GOP input and out of public view, delivering it to lawmakers the night before the vote. “I can guarantee you that few, if any, of this body have read this bill,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The White House directed some of its harshest criticism at the repeal of $13 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies. “The administration strongly opposes using the federal tax code to single out specific industries for punitive treatment,” the statement said.

Oil industry officials warned that the loss of the tax breaks could discourage domestic energy exploration and refinery expansion. “We will need all sources of energy, including oil and natural gas, to meet the country’s needs,” Red Caveney, president and chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, warned in a letter to lawmakers.

The White House also assailed the requirement that utilities generate 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Although Bush supported a so-called renewable-electricity standard as governor of Texas, the administration said a “one-size-fits-all” federal standard would drive up utility bills in areas not blessed with bright sunshine or strong wind.

About half of the states require utilities to invest in green power. California has required utilities to generate 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010 and has set of a goal of a third by 2020. Most of the nation’s electricity is generated using coal, nuclear power or natural gas. About 3% comes from renewable energy sources -- 11% in California.



Energy bill highlights

Among its provisions, the energy bill passed by the House would:

* Require automakers to reach a fleetwide vehicle fuel efficiency of 35 mpg by 2020. The current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for light trucks including SUVs, minivans and pickups.

* Offer incentives to encourage advanced-technology vehicles and batteries, as well as plug-in hybrid vehicles.

* Increase the annual requirement for the amount of renewable fuels produced and used in motor vehicles from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Beginning in 2016, an increasing portion would have to be from advanced biofuels, such as switch grass.

* Require utilities to use renewable energy, such as solar and wind, to generate 15% of their electricity or to buy renewable-energy credits from others by 2020, but would exempt municipal and other publicly owned power plants.

* Offer $9 billion in tax incentives for production of electricity from renewable sources.

* Include a $3,000 tax credit for the purchase of hybrids and electric vehicles.

* Provide up to $3 billion for states and local tax credit bonds for low-interest loans and grants to help families buy energy-efficient appliances, improve the energy efficiency of their home, or install solar panels, small wind turbines and geothermal heat pumps.

* Include $2.2 billion in tax incentives for clean coal technology.

* End tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are worth at least $13 billion.

* Sets new efficiency standards for appliances such as refrigerators and freezers.

* Promote the purchase by the federal government of energy-efficient products and procurement of alternative fuels with lower carbon emissions.

Source: Energy Independence and Security Act