Dingell’s energy bill blind spot

A MILLION YEARS of compression and heat may someday convert Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) into petroleum, just as it did the other dinosaurs. Unfortunately, by then there may be no humans left to pump a few gallons of Dingell into their Hummers, because the climate change he is so gleefully ignoring may have rendered us extinct.

Dingell, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is at the center of a damaging split among congressional Democrats on energy policy and global warming. The Senate last month passed a progressive energy bill that for the first time in nearly 20 years would improve gas mileage for cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., but similar legislation has stalled in the House, largely because of a dispute between Dingell and more responsible Democrats represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Dingell has a decent record on the environment, except when it comes to initiatives that target the auto industry. He initially backed a House energy bill that contained fuel economy improvements even weaker than the toothless measures proposed by President Bush. Pelosi saw to it that those provisions were removed, but it’s now unclear whether any fuel requirements will make it into the bill, or even when the House will get around to debating it.

Meanwhile, Dingell’s blind spot has widened — in addition to blocking anything that annoys his backers in Detroit, he now seems determined to poison the debate on global warming. Earlier this month, he said he would introduce a bill creating a carbon tax on fossil fuel use. Dingell admits he’s designing the bill to fail. Apparently, his aim is to demonstrate to fellow Democrats that Americans aren’t willing to pay a price to solve climate change and that politicians will suffer for trying.

Dingell’s mockery of a solution that many of the nation’s most prominent economists and environmentalists (as well as this editorial page) have endorsed is juvenile and destructive. Carbon taxes represent the simplest, most effective and economically least damaging option to fight global warming, because they encourage market solutions and their costs can be offset; higher prices for gas or power could be balanced by lower payroll taxes, for example. Yet a carbon tax comes with built-in political headaches, because voters are allergic to taxes and feel they’re already paying enough for energy.

To succeed, a carbon tax bill would have to be carefully crafted to avoid hurting consumers and the poor, and political leaders would have to explain its benefits. Instead, Dingell wants to propose an unpalatable tax that would be political suicide for any lawmaker to support. This could harm or kill more reasonable tax proposals and stall responsible policymaking for years — time the world can ill afford to waste.

Dingell is creating a woeful legacy after serving an otherwise distinguished half a century in the House. He can be forgiven for fighting to protect his district’s key industry, but there’s a warm spot in Greenland for leaders who play petty political games with the future lives and well-being of our children and grandchildren.