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More of the same: The energy bill that wasn’t

Umm, let’s see: The energy bill recently birthed by Congress and signed with much fanfare by President Bush calls for:

· $13.5 billion in handouts for the administration’s Big Oil cronies. As if they are in desperate straits and really need an ongoing subsidy from taxpayers. It’s not like the largest five oil companies haven’t racked up record-breaking profits (more than $315 billion), are sitting on nearly $60 billion in cash, and are so flush they’ve bought back $140 billion of their stock.

Doubtless you will shed a tear for their plight each time you fill your tank.

(It would be churlish, of course, to note that since 2001 the three dozen or so senators opposing elimination of the subsidies are reported to have accepted some $7 million in campaign contributions from oil companies, their political action committees, and company executives, or that the president threatened a veto if the subsidies were axed.)

· An increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

“In the end,” one news report said, “auto makers and oil companies praised” Congress for enacting the increase.

Resisting the urge to barf, one can only wonder why Congress fiddle-faddled for 32 years before finally mandating a change, why the standard doesn’t begin to take effect until the 2011 model year, and why the auto makers, who have fought CAFE increases tooth and nail for the past three decades, are allowed until 2020 to accomplish the full increase?

The three decades-old 25 mpg standard has saved millions of gallons of gasoline, but incremental increases over that period could’ve saved even more — it’s not like automotive technology stood still all that time (many cars in Europe get 50 mpg or better).

And lest one think this spells the end to the high-profit gas-guzzler SUVs and big pickup trucks, the measure has provisions to allow auto makers to trade fuel economy “credits” when they exceed the CAFE goals, and to borrow against future gains for up to three years.

While U.S. auto makers congratulate themselves on having basically dodged the CAFE bullet, it is interesting that five years ago China decreed that every car on its streets and highways get 38 mpg, increasing to 43 mpg in 2008.

No end-run fleet average stuff like the U.S., but every car.

· Massive increases in biofuels production, with a goal of 36 billion gallons in 2022, more than five times current production.

Most of that (21 billion gallons), after 2015, would come from non-food cellulosic sources such as switchgrass, wood chips, etc. — this, despite the fact that cellulosic ethanol production technology is more complex (and costly) than from corn (ethanol from corn would be capped at 15 billion gallons), and that only low volume demonstration plants are now in operation in the U.S.

Even if the 36 billion gallon goal could be achieved, it will do precious little good if only a relative handful of the driving public can buy the stuff because there’s no distribution infrastructure.

Little wonder many are calling it the “no energy plan.”


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