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The House’s Duty on Energy

By The New York Times (The New York Times) - July 20, 2007

The centerpiece of a generally constructive energy bill passed by the Senate last month was the first meaningful increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks in 30 years. The House version does not include such a provision, a serious shortcoming that Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts will try to remedy with an amendment when debate begins. His amendment is vital. It is also a no-brainer. Without it the bill will fall embarrassingly short of what it could and should do to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil as well as its contribution to global warming.

There is an element of risk here for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker who must decide whether to allow a vote on the amendment. It is vigorously opposed by John Dingell, the powerful Michigan Democrat who for years has had great influence over energy policy in the House, and by some members of her Democratic caucus. Approval is not a sure thing.

But taking risks is what leaders are for. Moreover, apart from her fortitude, Ms. Pelosi’s credibility is on the line. She has proudly described the bill, a compendium of ideas from nearly a dozen House committees, as her “Energy Independence Day” package. But this country already imports 60 percent of its oil, and the bulk of that goes to transportation. Thus, any serious attempt to make the country independent of foreign oil — or, at the very least, less dependent — requires the very fuel-efficiency provision the bill is missing.

Mr. Markey is not asking for the moon. His amendment would raise mileage standards from a fleetwide average of about 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon 2018. The National Academy of Sciences has said that this target can be achieved in a cost-effective manner without loss in performance or safety. By 2025, the country would also be saving 2.3 million barrels a day — roughly equal to current imports from the Persian Gulf.

The timing is right. A report last week from the authoritative International Energy Agency in Paris predicted that worldwide oil demand will rise faster than expected over the next five years while production declines — threatening supplies, increasing prices and placing an even greater emphasis on conservation of existing fuels and the development of alternatives.

In its present form, the bill contains positive elements for which Mr. Dingell and other committee chairmen can rightly claim credit — tax credits for clean energy, requirements for more efficient appliances and buildings, environmental safeguards that would protect sensitive public lands from the effects of oil and gas drilling. Some members of the House are urging that the wiser and less contentious course would be to pass this bill now and leave the fuel economy question for another day.

From where we sit, though, delay is incredibly risky. The Senate, the polls, the experts all say that the moment for strong action — a moment Ms. Pelosi cannot afford to miss — is at hand.