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The Flip Side of the Energy Bill
May 1, 2002
By Richard Prasad

On April 25, 2002, the Senate passed a long awaited energy bill. With great fanfare, the Senate rejected an amendment in the Energy Bill that would have allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But while Democrats were in a celebratory mood for defeating the ANWR drilling provision, as they should be, the defeat of drilling does not tell the whole story. Once the whole story is told, the weaknesses of the Democrats in the Senate, and indeed a party devoid of the presidency, are exposed.

The Senate passed bill on April 25th 2002, contained no provision for drilling in ANWR, that much is true, but the Senate passed bill did not even close the door on future drilling. According to an April 25th Washington Post article, a little-talked-about amendment inserted by Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski gave US companies tax incentives to build a new Alaskan pipeline.

Because of this amendment, there is now a federal guarantee on gas prices. If gas prices fell below a certain price, the oil companies would be entitled to a tax break. In other words, oil companies are now entitled to a federal subsidy, paid by you know who, the American taxpayer. Proponents of the amendment say oil companies would not take the risk of building the pipeline in volatile oil markets. But guaranteeing a profit for the oil companies defeats the purpose of capitalism doesn't it? Capitalism involves risk, if the risk is too high monetarily, an oil company presumably won't build a pipeline. Those so called free market Republicans aren't so free market when it comes to their buddies in the oil patch. Republicans are quick to blast social welfare programs for the poor, but they are equally quick to support corporate welfare without questioning their benefits.

It is easy to lay the passage of this pipeline building amendment on the Republicans, but they are a minority in the Senate. In fact, according to the April 25th Washington Post article, Tom Daschle was a big supporter of the pipeline amendment. Daschle called the pipeline project "One of the most significant ways to improve our energy security." One Democratic energy lobbyist says backing the pipeline would give Democratic politicians some cover if there are blackouts this summer. So now, hedging your bets and covering your butt is what passes for leadership now, is that right? No, it is not right, and plenty of Democrats should be angry about it.

This is not the only part of the Energy Bill where the Democrats dropped the ball. There was another amendment in the Energy Bill, called the Levin-Bond amendment. The Levin-Bond amendment allowed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards to stay the same as the are now. The Levin-Bond Amendment would leave increases in CAFE standards, or fuel economy, "to technological feasibility and economic practicability" according to Levin's own website. In other words, fuel economy will improve when the auto companies decide that they can afford the technology to make cars fuel efficient.

Another problem with the Levin-Bond Amendment is called the "duel fuel loophole" The duel fuel loophole actually allows CAFE standards to drop if the cars have a capability to use alternate fuel, like ethanol, but never ACTUALLY use ethanol. Even these insignifiicant rule changes are being left to the Bush Administration's Energy Department to initiate, and they have up to two years to make the rule changes. The Bush Administration probably agrees with most, if not all, of the Levin-Bond amendment.

The issue with the Levin-Bond amendment is that most people know that auto makers have the technology to make cars more fuel efficient. There are already hybrid cars available by Honda and Toyota, and these cars are making money for Honda and Toyota. For example, Honda is set to announce a hybrid minivan that can get up to 42 mpg. American car companies are being dragged kicking and screaming into hybrid technology. But instead of being leaders in the field, we are following the lead of Japan and it is because of Senators like Carl Levin.

This is not meant to beat up on auto companies and the Senators from auto states, but resisting change has been a common theme for the auto companies. Auto companies say that safety is a key concern for them in raising CAFE standards. They say smaller and lighter cars lead to more accidents, thousands of deaths a year, according to automakers. The fact is the bigger killer of Americans was due to rollover problems in SUV's. If the auto companies would pay more attention to the causes of rollover problems in SUV's they could save up to 9,000 lives a year, according to some estimates.

Let me ask the automakers some questions: where was their concern for safety when they fought the installation of safety belts in their cars? Where was the auto companies concern for safety when they fought the installation of air bags? Auto companes care about one thing, profits. When air bags were installed did car sales improve? Yes, they did. And if the automakers realize they can make money with fuel efficiency, which they can, they will make fuel efficient cars.

But the point is, we cannot wait for the automakers to come around. The alternative to the Levin-Bond amendment was the McCain-Kerry amendment to the Energy Bill. McCain-Kerry would have mandated that cars achieve fuel efficiency of 36 miles per gallon by the year 2015. The difference in the two amendments is so great that the McCain-Kerry amendment would save approximately the amount that we imported from Iraq, before Saddam's self imposed shutdown of Iraqi oil. Think of that, free of Iraqi oil, and all the attendant problems of Iraqi leadership and its stability. But the McCain-erry amendment wasn't even brought up to a vote. Because it was doomed to failure.

Here are the Democratic Senators who voted for the toothless auto company alternative, the Levin-Bond Amendment. Max Baucus of Montana, Even Bayh of Indiana, John Breaux of Louisiana, Robert Byrd of West Virgina, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Tom Carper of Delaware, Max Cleland of Georgia, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Carl Levin of Michigan, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Some of these Senators are the most liberal in the Senate, but because of their location in, or proximity to auto producing or oil producing states, they voted NOT to raise the CAFE standards on cars or light trucks. Call these Democratic Senators and tell them that that you are disappointed that they voted for the auto industry and not their consciences. Inundate their offices with e-mail, tell them you want the CAFE standards raised.

In the 1941, FDR challenged the US to fight a World War against Germany, even though the US had no industrial production in the area of shipbuilding and plane building to speak of. By 1945, our industrial production was the envy of the world. In the 1960's, JFK challenged US scientists to put a man on the moon, by 1969, that dream was realized. George W. Bush, seeing the evolving crisis in the Middle East, could have challenged America to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil by means of conservation. It would have been difficult, demanded short term sacrifice from both individuals and industry, but it could have been done. And America would have been better off in the long run. Bush of course went the other way and demanded an increase in oil and gas production.

Democrats rightly rejected that point of view, but Democrats wrongly capitulated with Bush by not demanding an increase in CAFE standards. They gave in to the auto industry and oil industry and forgot about the long-term well being of the country. If you wonder why W is so high in the polls, wonder no more - there is no leadership coming from the Democratic Senate. Democrats showed no backbone when a backbone was sorely needed.

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