HERE'S THE NICEST thing that we can say about the comprehensive energy bill that the House and Senate are due to take up, and will probably pass, before they leave town at the end of this week: It could have been a lot worse. Unlike the energy bill that the Senate filibustered in 2003, and in contrast to some earlier versions, this genuinely bipartisan bill contains fewer egregious pro-pollution measures and less pork. It will jump-start the commercial use of new clean coal, ethanol and biomass fuel technologies; promote energy efficiency standards; encourage investment in the electricity sector; and reinforce electricity reliability at last. It is less expensive than previous bills: The $11 billion net cost of the tax package plus the $2 billion direct spending comes to a relatively modest (for an energy bill) $13 billion over 10 years, with further costs depending on future appropriations.
Nevertheless, this is a bill that leaves most of the hard questions for later. Aside from a few tax breaks for purchasers of fuel-efficient cars, it makes no significant attempt to reduce the enormous automobile fuel demand that makes this country so dependent on imported oil. While it provides incentives for the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants, it doesn't deal with the unresolved long-term problem of nuclear waste. It leaves out the whole question of mandatory controls on the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, thereby costing both an opportunity to raise revenue and create a market mechanism that might have accelerated the development of cleaner, more efficient technologies. It also perpetuates distortions in the energy market, providing needless subsidies for oil drilling offshore and on federal lands, and for marginal oil wells. And, by the way, don't believe the spin: This bill will not lower fuel prices anytime soon.
Given how long Congress labored over this legislation, and how much negotiation was required to get it to this stage, it's hard not to be disappointed by a bill that in effect preserves the status quo. It's also hard not to wonder whether the era of comprehensive, 1,700-page energy bills designed to appeal to multiple constituencies has passed. Clearly, some of the missing pieces -- especially climate change and automotive fuel efficiency -- will have to be dealt with separately in the future.
But it's also true that some of the less controversial pieces of this bill, such as the electricity reliability provisions and the efficiency standards for appliances, could have been passed years ago. Now that this process is over, congressional leaders should step back, focus on the nation's most urgent long-term energy needs and get to work on more carefully targeted legislation.