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Pro: Bill could help U.S. escape mess in Mideast

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Matthew R. Auer
November 13, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Will the Democrats’ emerging bills help make the U.S. more energy independent?”

Congress has a lot on its mind. There are wars to fund. The campaign season looms large. And there’s the not-so-trivial issue of energy security.


It is hoped Congress realizes that the politics of war, elections and energy are bundled together. An America that gets its energy from domestic and renewable resources, and that is zealous about energy conservation, doesn’t have to fight wars in the Middle East nor cozy up to petrocrats.


Next year ushers in another kind of war—the battle for ballots. Voters are happier when they drive to the polling precinct on cheap gas. It’s no coincidence that the approval ratings of both Congress and the president swoon when gas prices soar. No one likes oil at $95 or more per barrel with the exception of the OPEC cartel and non-incumbent politicians.


Sitting senators and representatives can secure their fortunes and keep American servicemen and women out of harm’s way by sending a strong energy bill to the White House. Before that happens, major differences must be settled between Senate and House versions.


Currently, only the Senate bill has provisions for strengthening corporate average fuel economy standards. The Senate has called for Detroit to achieve average fuel economy of 35 mpg by 2020 for new vehicles.


Senators know this can be accomplished at a reasonable cost without compromising safety. It makes sense for Congress to force this rule on the Big Three. In the last 30 years, Detroit has steadfastly refused to improve fleetwide average fuel economy on its own.


While the Senate bill is relatively strong on CAFE, it lags in other areas. The House bill takes a tougher line against new domestic oil and gas exploration in pristine areas. If the House gets its way, drill rigs won’t spoil the terrain in ecological gems such as the Roan Plateau of Colorado.


The House also endeavors to do away with $16 billion in subsidies to the petroleum industry. Critics complain this provision will discourage oil companies from investing in infrastructure and exploring for new sources of oil.


However, as the House heard in testimony last spring, major oil companies tend to spend more money on stock buybacks and dividend payments to shareholders than to increased energy development—including, most critically, development of low-carbon alternatives to oil and gas.


We can justify subsidizing the next big breakthrough in solar technology. We can’t justify subsidies to Exxon Mobil shareholders. In any case, the Senate and House are divided on the corporate subsidy issue.


Expect the Senate-House Conference Committee to have an easier time agreeing on rules that steeply cut energy consumption in new commercial buildings. Senate-House conferees will also debate performance standards for light bulbs. If the House prevails, conventional incandescent bulbs will be banned some time next decade—following in the footsteps of Australia, which phases out all incandescents by 2010.


Of course, even if the Senate and House put aside their differences and pass a strong bill, it doesn’t mean the White House will follow suit. President Bush has threatened to veto a bill that rolls back tax-breaks and other subsidies for the petroleum industry.


Congress can distinguish itself from past Congresses by passing forward-looking energy legislation. Similarly, President Bush, who at times appears eager to chart a different course from his father, could make a bold statement about America’s energy security.


President George H.W. Bush signed an energy policy act in 1992 that maintained the status quo. Fifteen years later, America is more dependent on foreign oil, adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and fighting a longer, bloodier war in Iraq than the one fought by Bush the Elder.


Bush the Younger leaves the next president with unfinished business in Iraq. But if he signs progressive energy legislation, he can pre-empt future military commitments in the Middle East. Now that’s a policy of pre-emption every American can support!


Matthew R. Auer is a professor of Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Readers may write him at SPEA Building, Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind. 47404-7000 or e-mail him at mauer@indiana.edu.

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