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ENERGY: An Acceleration Toward Alternative Fuels?

Thursday, November 9, 2006

The possible shift in Congress on energy issues may be summed up in one race: House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who received substantial contributions from oil and gas companies, lost his seat to Jerry McNerney, who runs a start-up company that hopes to make wind turbines.

What will that change mean for energy legislation? Offshore drilling was the main energy initiative this year. Pombo had pushed hard to open up U.S. waters to more oil and natural gas exploration, but he would not accept a Senate version limited to a new part of the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling advocates now hope the House will compromise and accept the Senate version.

Most other energy issues will have to go through Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat and presumptive chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If the Senate changes hands, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico would take the helm of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In a conference call yesterday, Dingell said he would back measures to promote new energy technologies, diesel fuel and cars, electric vehicles, and conservation in buildings. But before raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards, he said attention should be paid to the ability of the industry to absorb the economic impact of these changes. His opposition to higher mileage standards could put him on a collision course with other Democrats. Public pressure for action has dissipated as gas prices have slid, but environmentalist forces within the Democratic party are claiming a mandate.

Dingell's staff says he will also hold hearings on auto industry trade issues and currency manipulation. Alan Reuther, legislative director for the United Auto Workers, which has opposed mandated fuel-economy increases, said lawmakers could rally behind legislation promoting advanced vehicle technologies and expanding the markets for ethanol and diesel fuels.

-- Steven Mufson and Sholnn Freeman

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