Shared Oil Goal Brought An Energy Compromise

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

When President Bush mentioned the words "climate change" for the first time in a State of the Union address last year, it signaled that the climate had indeed changed for several issues that were coalescing to force a White House and a Congress of different parties to work together.

Bush used his speech to outline a plan to cut the projected consumption of gasoline by 20 percent over the next 10 years by expanding the use of alternative fuels and forcing higher fuel efficiency for vehicles. By the end of the year, after multiple twists and turns, it became the one major area where he and Congress agreed and enacted new policy.

The two sides succeeded in collaborating on energy where they failed on many other issues largely because of the confluence of several powerful political forces -- skyrocketing energy prices, the growing worry about dependence on foreign oil and concern over the greenhouse gases that produce global warming.

For once, business leaders, environmentalists and national security groups were calling for the same outcome -- curbing what Bush has called America's addiction to oil. "There was a broad recognition that it was time," said Paul D. Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, who worked on environmental issues in President Bill Clinton's White House. Bush, he said, helped clear the way. "That gave running room to some of the red-state Democrats like [Sen.] Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Republican stalwarts like [Sen.] Ted Stevens (Alaska) to get on board."

Also important was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) getting Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) on board. Dingell, a powerful defender of the auto industry, eventually helped shape the compromise.

The deal almost collapsed when Democrats included $22 billion in taxes on oil companies and other energy producers and Bush threatened a veto. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) failed to break a Republican filibuster and took the tax increases out. For his part, Bush deferred to the Democratic version of how to increase fuel efficiency. Bush signed the bill with Pelosi and Reid at his side.

The law increased fuel efficiency standards for new automobile fleets for the first time in 32 years, from 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2020. It required the use of 36 billion gallons a year of ethanol and other biofuels by 2022. And it set rules that will change everything from the light bulbs consumers use in their homes to the way those homes are built.

"They got on the same wavelength and managed to get something into law," said former congressman Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), president of Resources for the Future, a think tank that studies energy and environmental issues.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company