Some Positive Energy

Monday, June 25, 2007

IF THE Senate energy bill were a movie it would be called "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." That's because the massive legislation, which passed 65 to 27 late Thursday, is a mix of historic action, missed opportunities and outright cowardice.

The Good: Corporate average fuel economy standards -- CAFE -- would be raised to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 for all cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles . Junking the provision to raise CAFE after that by 4 percent annually until 2030 was a good compromise that beat back a challenge led by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) to weaken the CAFE standards in the underlying bill. Kudos to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who jumped off the fence to endorse tougher standards. This would be the first significant increase in CAFE since 1975. Also positive: approval of a test of whether carbon capture and sequestration is commercially viable and the failure of the attempt to pump public money into a coal-to-liquid boondoggle.

The Bad: The original bill would have created a renewable energy standard requiring utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar or ethanol, by 2020. That provision was defeated, continuing America's ill-fated romance with dirty coal and foreign oil. An amendment proposed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) to establish a carbon registry also was defeated. This worthy idea could provide much-needed data for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. (More on this below.) Both measures should be revisited by the Senate.

The Ugly: Senate Republicans used a procedural vote to kill $32 billion in tax credits and incentives for renewable energy producers. They were doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry, which objected to trimming some of its existing tax credits and raising other taxes to p ay the cost of incentives to companies working to create new sources of clean energy and to promote energy efficiency. Such revenue adjustment is imperative if America is to reduce its contribution to global warming greenhouse gases. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is right to pledge to revive the package.

As important as many of the measures in this bill are, they amount to only tinkering at the margins of a serious problem. What the Senate bill doesn't do -- and what the House bill won't do when it is brought to the floor for consideration next month -- is spark a necessary debate on the imposition of a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. This must be on the agenda after the Fourth of July recess when the Senate is expected to take up global warming. Sooner or later, Congress will have to realize that slapping a price on carbon emissions and then getting out of the way to let the market decide how best to deal with it is the wisest course of action.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company