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Not The Greenest Energy Bill

The Senate was where environmentalists hoped to make their stand on energy policy. But after two weeks of votes and horse-trading, an emerging Democratic energy bill appears to be anything but green.

Environmentalists lost in their bid to boost automobile fuel economy and on a string of lesser issues — from provisions helping the nuclear industry to one that would allow small trees in national forests to be processed as biomass for electricity generation.

Demand for gasoline has been surprisingly strong in recent weeks. Mild winter weather has brought drivers out onto the roads and a reluctance to fly since the Sept. 11 attacks has encouraged car travel. More than 10 percent of all world oil consumption goes to gasoline use in America.

Demand has been further buoyed by a fall in pump prices over the winter. National average prices were running above $1.50 as recently as September, Lundberg said. Gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles sold in record numbers late last year, boosted by cheap financing.

The big fight over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is yet to come, and environmentalists are likely to prevail on it. The Senate will take that up when lawmakers return after a two-week Easter recess and try to wrap up the bill.

Whatever the Senate finally approves will have to be merged with an energy bill from the Republican-run House that is far friendlier to industry and anathema to environmentalists. It focuses heavily on increasing development of fossil fuels.

"The environmentalists are very unhappy to the point of despairing," said David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, an advocacy group for the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation. "They see House and Senate bills with nothing on fuel economy ... nothing to save oil to speak of."

Anna Aurilio, legislative director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the Senate legislation "started as a promising bill. But it's getting hijacked ... by the polluters."

On issues large and small, some of the most powerful business interest groups roaming the halls of Congress — automakers, the oil industry, electric utilities and farm groups — have scored significant victories, often turning back initiatives pushed by environmentalists:

  • Farmers won a government mandate for tripling ethanol production.
  • Large utilities headed off attempts at new federal regulation of power grids and won a scaled-back renewable-fuels requirement.
  • The nuclear industry is getting government help to develop its next generation of power plants and continued limits on accident liability.
  • The oil industry no longer has to contend with a federal requirement for oxygen in gasoline, or whether an oil-exploration method known as "hydraulic fracturing" might run afoul of clean-water laws.

    But all of those victories pale next to the coup by the auto industry, which now has the certainty it will not face tougher federal auto fuel economy requirements anytime soon.

    Ignoring pleas from environmentalists, the Senate rejected a proposal to boost the federal fleet requirement to 35 miles per gallon, an increase of 50 percent, and barred any increase in fuel economy requirements for pickup trucks, one-fifth of the vehicles sold.

    They "handed our nation's energy security over to the auto industry," fumed Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. Automakers and auto unions lobbied vigorously against the fuel economy increases and supported a measure that instead would require the Transportation Department to address the issue down the road.

    When the House passed its energy bill, environmental leaders denounced it as a sop to industry with too much emphasis on traditional energy sources — oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear — and far too little on promoting efficiency or renewables like solar and wind power.

    "We thought the Senate was a tremendous opportunity to focus more on demand, look more closely at conservation and efficiency ... instead of (industry) subsidies," said Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce. "In all counts we have failed to make gains; in fact, we have gone backwards."

    Among the other setbacks cited by environmentalists is what they view as the erosion of a once-ambitious attempt to make utilities generate more electricity from renewable fuels such as solar, wind and biomass from wood and agricultural scraps.

    A proposal by Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont independent, to require that 20 percent of the nation's electricity come from these energy sources was rejected outright. To broaden support, Democrats pushed for a 10 percent renewable-fuels requirement but exempted municipal and federally owned utilities and electric cooperatives.