Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bring energy policy to a vote

San Francisco Chronicle
Mark Cooper
Friday, August 11, 2006

It has been year since the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and six months since President Bush declared that "we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil," but the country has not moved forward in solving our energy crisis. Neither the Bush administration nor the congressional leadership seem to be taking the warning seriously. They have pushed through the least useful measure, drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, while slamming the door on the most important step we can take to reduce our oil consumption and imports -- dramatically improve the fuel economy of autos and light trucks. Congress has also moved to boost the already excessive profits of the oil industry, while doing nothing about the industry's abusive pricing practices.

In contrast to the Bush administration and the congressional leadership, the public and the rank-and-file members of Congress are ready for a new direction in energy policy and for bolder leadership.

The results of a recent national poll commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America tell the story. More than three-quarters of the respondents support requiring major increases in the fuel efficiency of cars, as well as requiring auto companies to boost alternative-fuel vehicles from 3 percent to 25 percent of the new car fleet. Those polled also support requiring auto manufacturers to put mileage stickers on all new cars, include mileage performance prominently in advertising, and add dashboard displays that show how much gas the driver is using as he or she drives.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats have jointly put forward aggressive proposals to cut oil consumption. One approach is to set firm targets for oil savings, up to 10 million barrels per day over a quarter-century. Another proposal would double auto-fuel economy, cutting gasoline consumption, the largest single use of oil in the United States, by more than 5 million barrels per day in 25 years. With bipartisan support, bills have also been introduced to make sure that consumers have easy access to accurate information about the fuel consumption of their vehicles; others would strengthen oversight of abusive oil industry pricing.

The futility of being preoccupied with drilling is clear in the numbers. America consumes about 25 percent of the oil and gasoline used by the entire globe, but we only have about 2 percent of the world's crude oil reserves. Because the U.S. oil resource base has been exploited for more than a century, there is virtually no chance that a great deal more oil will be found here. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the amount of oil in the new drilling areas is less than 2 percent of the world oil supply. These small additions to supply, added over years, simply don't affect the supply-demand balance enough to lower prices. It is equal to about two years of U.S. consumption, hardly a long-term solution.

The Bush administration claims to have implemented 95 percent of the supply-side, industry friendly recommendations of Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Task Force, but that is not providing short-term relief for high gas prices, nor is it likely to be a long term-solution to the problem of a petroleum-based economy depending on a dwindling supply of oil. This summer's record gasoline prices and oil industry profits reinforce the concern that the Bush administration's policy has not benefited the consumer or the nation.

It is time for a change in energy policy. The United States needs a longer-term and bolder strategy to address its oil addiction. The efficiency measures that have been blocked by congressional leadership will do much more to solve our oil problem than drilling -- five to 10 times as much.

As members of Congress travel through their districts during summer recess, they are likely to find that their constituents are extremely upset about U.S. energy policy. Our poll shows more than four-fifths of those surveyed are concerned about gasoline prices and three-quarters are concerned about importing oil from the Mideast. It is hoped that, after they get an earful, the rank-and-file members of Congress will return to Washington and convince the leadership to allow the critical fuel economy bills to be put to a vote.
Energy bills

-- The Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act, S2025 (Brownback and Bayh), calls for reducing America's oil consumption by 10 million barrels per day over the next quarter century. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House: the Fuel Choices for American Security Act of 2005, HR4409, (Kingston and Engel).

-- The Ten in Ten Fuel Economy Act, S3543 (Feinstein and Snowe), and HR3762, (Boelhert and Markey), would require about a10 mpg increase in the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks over the next 10 years. The Fuel Economy Reform Act of 2006, S3694, (Lugar and Obama) would extend that rate of improvement into the future, achieving about a doubling of the fuel economy of autos and light trucks over a quarter of a century.

-- The Oil and Gas Industry Antitrust Act of 2006, S2557, (Specter and Kohl) would allow the formation of a joint task force of federal and state attorneys general to monitor the structure, conduct and performance of gasoline markets. The Oil and Gas Traders Oversight Act of 2006, S2642, (Feinstein and Snowe, Levin and Cantwell) would give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission oversight authority over unregulated energy futures.

Mark Cooper is the research director of the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit association of 300 consumer groups, with a combined membership of more than 50 million people.

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