House energy bill attracts critics of all types

Not typically aligned, representatives from the oil industry and environmental organizations each see things they don’t like in an early draft of energy legislation written by House Democrats, underscoring the difficulty Congress may have in lowering both greenhouse gas emissions and foreign oil imports.

The package, the subject of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing today, would require greater production of alternative fuels. But that effort would include a controversial plan to develop coal-to-liquid technology that would replace traditional gasoline.

The bill would also impose new mileage standards for cars and trucks, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), set by federal regulators to the maximum extent feasible. But it is not an aggressive enough target for some environmental advocates.

Early criticism of the package isn’t limited to outside groups, however. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for example, said Tuesday night that she objects to separate language that would undercut her home state’s “clean cars” rule.

California is currently seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require automakers to lower greenhouse gas emissions of their vehicles by as much as 25 percent by 2016. Eleven other states have since adopted the California program.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said the bill would “kneecap” the efforts to reduce emissions in those states.

“It is a positive thing that at least we are all talking about improvements in full economy,” O’Donnell said. “But it can’t be
something that makes a minor improvement and at the same time wipes out far better standards, like California’s.”

Pelosi’s opposition to this section of the bill may re-ignite an earlier disagreement with Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) over energy and climate legislation.

Dingell and Pelosi sparred earlier this year over the Speaker’s move to create a separate climate panel. Both sides resolved the dispute by agreeing that the new panel would have no authority to write legislation.

Dingell released a statement following Pelosi’s objections Tuesday, saying that “these issues will be addressed when we establish an economy-wide system for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.”

“The draft moves us closer to this goal. It strengthens fuel economy standards, establishes a federal low carbon fuel standard, requires automakers to report their carbon footprint and clarifies three conflicting regulations of fuel economy,” the statement added.

A call to the committee was not returned by press time.

Lobbyists interpret Dingell’s statement as an indication that he intends to hold higher CAFE standards hostage to agreement on broader emissions reduction elsewhere.

Dingell is a longtime auto industry advocate, and carmakers generally oppose higher, fleet-wide CAFE standards.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Energy and Air Quality subcommittee, wrote the energy bill. Like Dingell, Boucher has been a source of both frustration and hope for environmental groups, which are looking to Democrats to push through meaningful legislation to address global warming after Republicans largely ignored the issue.

Anthony Kreindler, spokesman for the group Environmental Defense, wants the House bill to go further but credits it for requiring more production of low-carbon fuels and the committee for continuing to advance the issue of energy security and climate change.

Environmental Defense will testify today on the Boucher bill, and it is expected to call for more aggressive fuel-mileage standards, like those supported by the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a coalition of environmental groups and companies that support mandatory greenhouse gas emissions caps.

The Boucher bill would leave it to the Transportation Department to set fuel mileage standards at “the maximum feasible level for each model.” Fuel economy standards could not be less than 36 miles per gallon after model year 2021 for passenger cars and 30 miles per gallon after 2024 for light trucks.

Kreindler said that Environmental Defense’s analysis shows the bill would fall far short of USCAP’s own transportation emissions goals.

“You need much stronger targets,” he said.

For their part, oil lobbyists are targeting a provision in the bill that would mandate the use of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel by 2025.

The House bill requires the EPA to establish minimum volumes of alternative fuel to be included in the fuel mix starting in 2013. But oil industry advocates say the goal presumes that cellulosic ethanol and other energy sources like hydrogen are available.

The industry also objects to the bill’s promotion of E85, a fuel mix with 85 percent ethanol, through a grant program designed to encourage installation of E85 pumps and a prohibition against restricting gas station owners from installing alternative fuel pumps in franchise agreements.

The oil industry opposes E85 in part because it provides 30 percent less energy than traditional gasoline. One lobbyist called the House bill a “screw job.”