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The Planet

Senate caves to auto industry, strips conservation measures from energy bill

Editor's note: When The Planet went to press in mid-April, the Senate had just voted to reject Sen. Frank Murkowski's (R-AK.) amendment to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

By Sarah Wootton

It was good, then bad and now ugly. After weeks of weakening amendments and debate, the Senate's once-promising energy bill lies stripped of significant measures promoting energy efficiency and renewables.

"It's unacceptable in its current form," said Debbie Boger, senior representative with the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.

When Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) introduced the bill in March, the Sierra Club praised it as a "strong framework." The bill called for an increase in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE), a boost in renewable energy and it kept the Arctic Refuge off limits to oil drilling.

The bill's original language included a CAFE proposal from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would have required a fuel-economy standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2013, saving the United States 1 million barrels per day. The Sierra Club urged the Senate to wean the nation from its dependence on oil. The United States imports 57 percent of its oil and depends on Kuwait and Iraq for 1 million barrels per day.

But now the Senate bill is starting to look like the bill the House passed last August and the fossil-fuel-friendly plan released by the Bush administration a year ago. Both the House bill and the administration plan call for drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Sen. Murkowski's amendment to open the Refuge to drilling is expected to be filibustered by Sens. Kerry and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Thanks to the scare tactics of the auto industry lobby, the bill lost its CAFE improvement to a do-nothing amendment proposed by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) giving the Department of Transportation the authority it already has - but has never used - to increase fuel-economy standards.

"In a superbly orchestrated, sleekly packaged campaign of dishonesty, the auto industry set out to terrify rural Americans, claiming that, six months after the war on terrorism began, their government was coming to take away their pickup trucks," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

"Instead of drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge, we should tap Detroit's ingenuity to produce trucks and cars that travel farther on each gallon of gas," said Laura Clift, chair of the Arkansas Chapter.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded that increased fuel efficiency in cars and trucks is possible without reductions in car size, weight or safety.

In response to the bitter defeat on CAFE standards, Pope said he was "ashamed" that the Senate and the auto industry "chose the past."

The bill got worse when senators rejected 70 to 29 an amendment by Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-Vt.) requiring that 20 percent of America's electricity be supplied by renewable sources such as wind or solar energy by 2020. Instead, the Senate passed a weaker amendment calling for just 4 to 5 percent by 2020, a tiny increase from the current level of 2 percent.

Following these votes, the Sierra Club held press conferences and ran ads to criticize senators for "failing to loosen the grip oil-producing nations have on us" and for "caving in" to the energy industry and other special interests.

Meanwhile, the ongoing controversy about how involved (or not) environmental groups were in developing the Bush plan heated up. A judge ordered the release of National Energy Task Force documents, which showed that between late January and May 17, when the administration released its plan, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with 109 representatives of the energy industry and trade associations but not one person from environmental or consumer groups.

If the Senate bill passes, it will move to a conference committee with the House bill, which could result in an even-worse energy bill - one that would do little or nothing to curtail America's dependence on foreign oil and might include drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

Now that would be ugly.

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Write your senators and urge them to support an energy bill that reduces our use of foreign oil and increases our energy security, protects our families from electricity price gouging and safeguards our environment.

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