Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story said Rep. John D. Dingell was opposed to a cap and trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases. He had not ruled out that option but is sharply critical of it. This version of the story reflects that.

Democrats Lack Unity in House Over Energy Bill

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 2:14 PM

This week's energy bill is Exhibit A of why it is difficult to hold House Democrats together and why energy policy and congressional politics don't mix easily.

Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spent an hour trying to mollify representatives from oil and gas districts by changing provisions on oil royalties and permitting on federal leases, but half a dozen of those 25 Democrats were still unhappy with provisions on water use, land rights and taxes.

Meanwhile, Democrats from Southern states are battling an amendment that would require utilities to increase the amount of renewable energy in their electricity mix.

Finally, the chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), claims to have rounded up about 200 votes for an amendment raising fuel economy standards, while the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, John D. Dingell (Mich.), and 50 other Democrats have signed on to a weaker version. Both have claimed to be consulting closely with Pelosi. But yesterday, Pelosi said the bill was not likely to address fuel economy at all, postponing the issue until a conference committee reconciles House and Senate energy bills in September.

"The politics of energy in many ways are like geological strata," said a House leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her relationship with senior members, citing "the overlay of people who have concerns about labor and environment, different regional concerns, people who are from high-production states versus states meeting energy needs through conservation and efficiency."

Democratic leaders plan to pass energy legislation by the end of the week before recess, and their sense of urgency was probably sharpened yesterday after crude oil prices closed at a record $78.21 a barrel. But top Democrats have been struggling over key issues, including proposals to mandate minimum ethanol use.

Pelosi is likely to allow the introduction of an amendment requiring electric utilities, with the exception of influential rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, to make renewable energy at least 15 percent of their generation mix by 2020. A version of the amendment that sets the target at 20 percent has 152 co-sponsors. Supporters are eager for the renewable energy standard to be adopted by the House because it is not in the Senate version.

While opposition is strongest in Southern states, where officials say they lack the wind or hydropower resources to meet those targets, supporters say they received a political boost this month after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) endorsed high renewable standards. The Edison Electric Institute says it opposes a "one size fits all" approach, but corporations are divided on the issue. "You can't tell your players without a scorecard," Markey said.

Pelosi is unlikely to allow amendments about fuel economy, even though she has said she supports the Senate version, which would raise average standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2022.

That would be a setback for Markey, who said "a significant improvement in the fuel economy of the U.S. fleet is an indispensable part of a new energy strategy." Markey wants to raise the standard to 35 miles a gallon by 2018. On Thursday, he altered his bill to exempt trucks used for hauling and allow certain automakers to fall short of the target if the entire U.S. fleet meets the goal. Leadership aides said it was not clear, however, whether he had won enough votes.

Pelosi is eager to avoid a breach with the powerful Dingell, who opposes the Markey amendment and whose committee will handle many important pieces of legislation, including health care. The United Auto Workers union and automakers have also lobbied against the Markey measure.

"Committee chairmen can and should be able to process the legislation in the best way possible," said Dingell, who backed a bill recently proposed by Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.) and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) that would give automakers until 2022 to reach 32 miles per gallon, with escape clauses in the event of technological or economic obstacles. He said the bill "accomplishes its basic purpose, which is to reduce fuel use and emissions of carbon dioxide" and "does not hurt jobs or opportunities of people who work in the industry."

"It's a chicken-and-the-egg problem," said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, which backs the Markey amendment. "Folks are not going to line up on one side or the other if there's not going to be a vote. Why annoy the UAW or people like me if you don't have to? If the leadership called a vote, I think we would win that vote. Otherwise we're kind of stuck."

Pelosi could wait until a conference committee irons out differences between the House and Senate bills. Dingell would be on that committee. "It's just a matter of making the best political judgment as to how to do it," Markey said.

Dingell said the best way to change fuel economy is to tax carbon or gasoline so people buy more-efficient cars, and he has vowed to make that part of a climate-change bill in September. He is critical of the cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases that many senators have embraced because, he said, it has not worked well in Europe and is a tax mechanism in disguise. He said if Congress opts for a cap-and-trade approach it should learn from "the follies" of Europe.

Some lobbyists have suggested that Dingell was so unlikely to win support for his tax approach that the Democrat, the longest-serving member of the House, was simply maneuvering to make sure no legislation on fuel economy is adopted at all.

But Dingell angrily replied that his climate proposal "is not a straw man." Noting that he backed President Bill Clinton's ill-fated energy and gasoline taxes, he said, "I am one who believes that unless and until we have achieved economic incentives for conservation of energy, there will be very little conservation of energy."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company