The Senate Energy Bill

Thursday, June 14, 2007

GIVEN THE alternative of doing nothing about global warming -- which President Bush and the Republican-led Congress excelled at for the past six years -- the flurry of activity on climate change in Washington is welcome. President Bush at least agreed at the recent Group of Eight summit in Germany to international talks on the topic, and the Democratic-led Senate is debating an energy bill designed in part to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But here's the problem with the latter: Nowhere in its 277 pages does the legislation even entertain the notion of incentives to curb greenhouse gas emissions, through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system or both.

There are useful provisions in the Senate bill, as well as some areas of concern. The drive for greater efficiency, with the federal government taking the lead, is good. For instance, the fleet of federal vehicles would have to reduce petroleum consumption by 20 percent by October 2015, and "all general-purpose lighting" in federal buildings would be switched to Energy Star products. The bill would push for the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels in vehicles by 2022, and there would be an emphasis on creating that renewable fuel from plant material other than corn, such as switch grass, and from waste materials, such as crop residue and animal waste.

The requirement that automakers boost their fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 also makes sense; senators in thrall to the auto industry shouldn't be allowed to weaken that provision. The funding devoted to testing carbon capture and sequestration -- where the carbon dioxide emitted from coal-powered plants would be stored underground, not released into the atmosphere -- is a good use of public money, as long as the expenditure is not supporting a foregone conclusion that sequestration is the answer to our prayers for a solution to global warming. The emerging coal-to-liquid movement, on the other hand, would be a sop to the coal industry that would pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That is not the way to go.

What Congress should do is find the courage to put a price on carbon and then let the market determine how best to limit emissions. With that, the United States -- the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide -- would finally start doing its part in the battle against global warming. Without a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, or at least a serious debate about them, anything Washington does is tinkering around the edges -- expensive tinkering, perhaps, but tinkering nonetheless.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company