The New York Times (pg. A24)  [Printer-friendly version]
December 19, 2007


By John M. Broder

Legislation that will slowly but significantly change the cars
Americans drive, the fuel they burn, the way they light their homes
and the price they pay for food cleared the House on Tuesday by a
large margin. President Bush said he would sign it on Wednesday.

The bill, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 314 to 100, sets higher
fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks for the first time in
22 years and requires the annual production of 36 billion gallons of
renewable fuels by 2022, a fivefold increase from current ethanol
production levels.

The measure, the Energy Independence and Security Act, also
establishes new efficiency requirements for household appliances and
government buildings, and aims to phase out the incandescent light
bulb within the next decade.

Its passage is one of the largest steps on energy the nation has taken
since the oil crises of the 1970s. But its full costs will not be
known for years. Critics say it will make cars and trucks less safe
and more expensive, divert farmland to costly production of feedstock
for ethanol and other synthetic fuels, and raise the price of food
because of competition for corn and grain between food producers and
fuel refiners.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the bill as groundbreaking because it
will significantly increase the efficiency of the nation's autos,
reducing oil imports and cutting production of gases that scientists
blame for global warming. The bill requires cars and light trucks sold
in the United States to meet a fleetwide average of 35 miles a gallon
by 2020.

Passage of the bill redeems a promise Democrats made when they retook
control of Congress last January. "You are present at a moment of
change, of real change," Ms. Pelosi told her House colleagues before
the vote.

Ms. Pelosi and other supporters of the bill did express disappointment
that it does not require utilities to produce a growing share of
electric power from renewable sources and that it was stripped of a
package of subsidies for wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative
energy sources that would have been paid for by billions of dollars in
higher taxes on oil companies. Mr. Bush had threatened to veto a bill
with those provisions, and the Senate eliminated them before passing
the legislation last week.

"It could have been stronger," said the chairwoman of the Senate
Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer, Democrat of
California. "It's really unfortunate that we didn't have the renewable
electricity standard or the incentives for wind and solar. But we'll
fight for those another day."

The bill's centerpiece is the requirement for a significant increase
in corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, which has been 27.5 miles
a gallon for cars and 22.2 for light trucks, S.U.V.'s and minivans
since 1985, when it was raised administratively. Until now, the
standard has not been increased by law since 1975.

Early this year, Mr. Bush proposed an ambitious increase in automobile
mileage and a surge in production of ethanol and other alternative
fuels. This bill achieves similar ends through different means, and
the White House expressed satisfaction.

"While the president's alternative fuel standard and CAFE proposal
would have gone farther and faster," said Dana M. Perino, the White
House press secretary, "we are pleased that Congress has worked
together on a bipartisan way that provides the chance for the
president to sign a bill that does not include tax increases."

The bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy estimates that the
mileage requirement and the biofuels provision combined will reduce
projected oil consumption by 2.8 million barrels a day by 2020 and
five million barrels a day by 2030.

The group also says the two measures together will reduce the nation's
projected carbon dioxide emissions by 4 percent.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents distillers of
alternative fuels and which lobbied vigorously for the bill, said that
if the nation could meet the 36-billion-gallon annual production
mandate by 2020, roughly one-sixth of projected gasoline consumption
would be replaced with fuels based on corn, switch grass, wood chips
and other renewable sources.

"At that level of consumption, 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels
will effectively drive us through the months of January and February,"
the group said in a statement. "No oil 'til March."

The auto industry, particularly American manufacturers that depend so
heavily on truck and S.U.V. sales, had resisted the new efficiency
standard but came to support it at the prodding of the automakers'
leading champion in Congress, Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat
of Michigan.

Chrysler's president, James E. Press, said he welcomed the new
legislation and hoped it would remain the single national standard
that auto companies must meet.

"Now we get some better clarity where the road goes and how steep the
hill to climb is going to be, and we're going to have fun," said Mr.
Press, formerly Toyota's top executive for North America. "We're
committed to meeting these standards and doing our part."