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Climate cloak and dagger

For a few hours yesterday, it seemed an eerie peace had broken out on Capitol Hill.  It was almost as if the greens and the auto lobby were holding hands and singing in unison about the glories of higher fuel efficiency standards. But it was like a total eclipse -- rare and fleeting.   By sunset, the knives were out again.  Perhaps it was a hallucination -- or an illusion.   

In the morning, President Bush signed a bill boosting fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 32 years.  And it wasn't just a little -- it was a meaty 40 percent hike, from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.  Both Sierra Club and General Motors sent out press releases praising the same bill.  How often does that happen?  Greenpeace and the White House appeared to be on the same page. 

Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club, said in a press release: "As it becomes ever clearer that urgent action is needed to combat global warming, this bill will make real progress by achieving a quarter of the cuts we need by 2030 if we are to avert the most catastrophic effects of a warming climate."

Rick Wagoner, Chairman of General Motors, said: "GM commends the Congress and President for passage of an energy bill. The new fuel economy standards within the bill set a tough, national target that GM will strive to meet."

But if you looked carefully at the rhetoric about the Energy Bill, which also mandated the production of more ethanol, you could sense that the Republicans and Democrats were focused on different things.  The Republicans and General Motors didn't talk about global warming -- they talked about "energy independence."  Regardless of whether they believe that climate change is a problem, they wanted to reduce the amount of American cash flowing to hostile oil-producing governments in Venezuela and Iran, for national security reasons.  The Democrats also said they want to reduce dependence on foreign fuel -- but they were singing a different tune, mostly about climate change.

By night fall, it became clear just how different the songs were.  At 6:15 p.m. the public relations agents for the Bush EPA were frantically calling reporters across the country, informing them of a hastily-arranged telephone press conference with EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.  During the 6:30 p.m. teleconference, Johnson said that his agency will block the efforts by California, Maryland and 15 other states to create programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 30 percent by 2016.   Johnson suggested that Bush signing the Energy Bill was enough -- and that his agency didn't have to do anything more to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.  He said his agency would not grant Califnoria's request for a waiver that would allow it and the other states proceed with their "clean cars" programs. Johnson said a federal standard was preferable to a "patchwork" of different state regulations. (But this was misleading -- the alternative idea, approved by Congress in 1967, is two separate auto emission standards, California's and the federal standards, and states for decades have had the option to choose between them).

What really happened here?  Why would the President act green in the morning -- and then undercut that image by nightfall?  Perhaps it was just as Bush's EPA Administrator said -- that the administration felt that federal standards were better in principal for a universal problem like climate change. But that doesn't square with the Republican party's long-standing position that state rights should be respected.

Maybe the president was essentially forced to sign the fuel efficiency standards, because they were backed by Democratic-led majorities in the House and Senate.   But he wasn't forced to grant the EPA waiver to allow California and Maryland to move forward with climate change programs. So he did only want he absolutely had to do, and no more.

David Doniger, climate center policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it wasn't necessarily the case that Bush was forced to sign the Energy Bill, because he faced a veto-proof majority. Bush had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill, which would have mandated more spending on alternative energy like wind power, and the killing of tax breaks for big oil companies.

But Bush backed the final version of the bill, because it had been weakened to his liking by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. Reid knew he didn't have the two thirds majority necessary to override a veto, and so he removed many of the parts of the bill most objectionable to Bush.  Bush didn't get everything he wanted, however -- for example, the president wanted to have a provision in the bill that would have subordinated California's pollution control regulations to the federal Department of Transportation. Reid and Congress rejected this.

But Bush accepted the tightened fuel economy standards -- although Doniger said this was more of a passive acceptance of legislation that was driven by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat (and former Baltimorean), as well as Reid and others.

So why would both decisions be announced in the same day, as part of the same news cycle? Doniger speculated that the Bush administration had a tacit deal with the auto industry. "It looks like there was a quid pro quo...they (the Bush administration) said you're going to have to live with the fuel economy standards... But we are going to keep you from having to live with the (tougher) California standards."

The White House asserted that Bush had been pushing Congress for the increased fuel efficiency standards.

In fact, during Bush's last State of the Union address,the President made a proposal for a 20 percent reduction in the use of gasoline over the next 10 years. The next day, he said translated to an increase in fuel economy by four pecent a year.  But Doniger noted that the Democrats did almost all of the lobbying to pass the bill, and Bush didn't twist any Republican arms to get them to vote for the fuel efficiency standards.  "They didn't lift a finger to get it done," Doniger said of the White House.

This isn't the White House's version of events.  According to a Bush administration press release, the President deserves credit for launching the idea in his January "State of the Union" address. "The bill the President signed ....responds to the challenge of his bold 'Twenty in Ten' initiative, which President Bush announced in January.  It represents a major step forward in expanding the production of renewable fuels, reducing our dependence on oil, and confronting global climate change."

Most observers agree that the program by California, Maryland, New York and 14 other states would have reduced more greenhouse gases quicker than the federal program.  But the federal program will help, too.

Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group, said he thinks voters will come away more repelled that the President denied the state initiatives than happy that he signed the federal law.

"I think its disasterous for the Republican party that the preident is fighting all these clean energy policies," Heavner said. "I really think its surprising."

But not everybody likes the increased fuel efficiency standards.  They will certainly mean smaller cars in the future -- and some Americans like big old gas guzzling SUV's and Hummers.

The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute sent out a press release warning: “American families now face the prospect of paying more for food, gas, and vehicles... Under the guise of addressing our energy problems, the Congress and President have made them worse. The new law includes an increase in fuel economy regulations for cars and light trucks, making a program that already contributes to thousands of highway deaths a year even more deadly. The federal rules for new vehicles force carmakers to downsize their new vehicles, making them less crashworthy in the case of an accident."

This safety argument doesn't seem to square with other reports that SUV's tend to flip over more often. And while big trucks may be more safe to those inside their armored walls, they may not be so safe to the drivers of regular sized cars that happen to get crushed beneath the high bumpers of the big trucks.

Any thoughts on this debate, dear readers?

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